Retail sales added to employment data in suggesting the economy found momentum at the end of the first quarter after an unusually cold and snowy winter disrupted economic activity at the end of 2013 and the beginning of this year.
So-called core sales, which strip out automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, and correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product, increased 0.8 percent in March.
That followed a revised 0.4 percent rise in February. Core retail sales had previously been reported to have increased 0.3 percent in February.
Despite the two consecutive months of gains, a drop in core sales in January suggests consumer spending will slow down substantially from the fourth quarter's brisk 3.3 percent pace.
Retail sales last month were buoyed by a 3.1 percent surge in receipts at automobile and parts dealers. That was the biggest advance since September 2012. Excluding autos, retail sales were up 0.7 percent, the biggest increase in a year, after rising 0.3 percent in February.
Sales at building materials and garden equipment stores increased 1.8 percent, the largest rise in eight months.
Receipts at electronics and appliance stores, however, fell 1.6 percent. There were also declines in sales at gasoline stations, which fell 1.3 percent. Excluding gasoline, retail sales rose a solid 1.4 percent, the biggest rise in four years.
Sales at furniture stores increased 1.0 percent. Receipts at clothing stores climbed 1.0 percent as well. There were also gains in receipts at sporting goods shops, restaurants and nonstore retailers.