Last month's increase was far better than the 0.8 percent gain many analysts had been expecting and represented a significant rebound from the lackluster 0.4 percent increase in March.
The spending surge was led by a 2.5 percent jump in auto sales. But the strength was widespread with clothing stores posting their best increase in 2½ years. The sales report was more evidence that a dip in economic activity in March was just temporary.
In a second report, the number of U.S. workers filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose by 4,000 to 340,000 last week, the highest level for jobless claims in a month. The four-week moving average for claims also rose by 2,000 to 324,000.
Even with the increases, the claims numbers remained at levels indicating the labor market was continuing to improve, analysts said.
The 2.5 percent increase in auto sales in April followed a 0.8 percent rise in March and was the best showing since a 4.2 percent surge in December, a month when dealers offered attractive end-of-the-year incentives in an effort to clear out a backlog of unsold cars.
But even excluding autos, consumer demand was strong last month, rising by 1.1 percent, far above the tiny 0.2 percent March increase in retail sales excluding autos.
The strong April increase in retail sales came after a number of reports had given indications that the economy slowed significantly in March, raising worries that the country might be on the verge of another "soft patch" as a sharp jump in energy prices caused consumers and businesses to grow more cautious.