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Optimism for the government's August retail sales report was mounting ahead of its release Friday morning, with economists citing a combination of factors -- solid same-store sales data, impressive auto sales, higher gasoline prices and tax relief -- that could lead to a better-than-expected result.

A consensus of economists expects retail sales to rise 1.5% in August, after climbing for the past three months. Excluding autos, retail sales are forecast to climb 0.8%.

"We have had a string of strong numbers related to household spending," said Mike Moran, chief economist at Daiwa Securities. "I think that you could get an upside surprise."

Among individual companies,

Wal-Mart

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said sales were up 6.9% in August, as the result of a sizzling back-to-school season.

Other retailers' reports showed buyers were busy in August, as well.

Target

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said comps were 5.7% better.

Higher-end names, such as

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Neiman Marcus

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and

Nordstrom

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, also had good results.

"The tax cuts as well as the lagged effects of vigorous refinancing in the spring were the underlying cause for spending in August," Moran said. "The vehicle category was also very strong."

New car and light-truck sales climbed to a 19 million annual selling rate, the best level in two years.

Moran expects that sales of used cars, car parts and service on cars may have cooled off in August, however. "This is an area that has a lot of volatility," he said. "That is the only negative I can see."

Meanwhile, experts said higher gasoline prices could give an upward bias to August's retail sales. And economists now believe real consumption growth could be better than 5% in the third quarter.

Looking beyond, there is some concern about how long consumers will keep up their spending. Until the labor market improves, economists say, it is unclear how long the retail sales rally will last.

"One thing that would make me feel more confident in the sustainability of retail sales growth would be a better job market," said Josh Feinman, chief economist at Deutsche Asset Management. "That tends to strengthen consumer confidence. And it reinforces the dynamics of a business cycle expansion."