Sales at U.S. retailers rose sharply for the third straight month in March, as Americans continued to weather the hike in gasoline prices and splurged on buying new cars and renovating their homes.

Retail sales jumped 0.8 percent in March, after advancing 1 percent in February, Commerce Department figures showed Monday. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast a much smaller gain of 0.3 percent.

Sales excluding the auto sector also rose 0.8 percent last month, after having been up 0.9 percent in February and 1.2 percent in January.

Consumer spending accounts for as much as 70 percent of U.S. economic growth, so the big increase in spending over the past few months is likely to result in a stronger first-quarter growth.

The gain pushed retail sales to a record $411.1 billion, 24 percent higher than the recession low in March 2009.   

Sales may have been helped by warmer weather as sales at building material stores rose 3 percent in March, the biggest increase this year, following a 0.7 percent increase in February.

Furniture sales rose 1.1 percent in March after having been down 1 percent in February. Electronics were up 1 percent and apparels were up 0.9 percent.

In March, sales at Gap Inc. climbed 8 percent, while sales at Target and Macy's Inc. rose 7.3 percent, respectively.

Auto sales rose 0.9 percent in March and gasoline stations reported sales increase of 1.1 percent.

Automakers sold about 1.4 million vehicles in March, posting their best monthly sales in almost five years, according to industry research firm Autodata Corp. The sales total was 12.7 percent ahead of the same month last year and amounted to an annual sales pace of 14.4 million vehicles, after seasonal adjustments.

Volkswagen sold 36,588 vehicles in March, a 34.6 percent increase over the year-ago period and its best March since 1973. Nissan North America's U.S. sales rose 12.5 percent to 136,317 vehicles, an all-time record. And Kia Motors America sold 57,505 vehicles last month, a 30.2 percent gain, and its largest monthly total ever.