Retail sales rose for the second time in two months in July -- the first time that's happened this year -- but not at a pace that offers definitive evidence the U.S. consumer can be depended on to single-handedly sustain the economy.

The Commerce Department said sales rose 1.2% in July to $304.3 billion following an upwardly revised 1.4% gain in June. Much of the improvement is attributable to cars and trucks that are being purchased with interest-free loans, as well as gasoline sales. In fact, factoring those segments out, retail spending was unchanged in July.

Fed officials are meeting Tuesday in Washington to set interest-rate policy. Although the report may not be among the data the committee considers, it is consistent with recent signals that the U.S. recovery continues to sputter along unevenly, with weakness in one area offsetting strength in another.

Economists had expected retail sales to rise 1.2% after June's previously reported 1.1%. Sales excluding automobiles were expected to rise 0.3%; they in fact rose 0.2% after a previously reported 0.4% June rise. Sales at car and parts dealerships rose 4.2%, the same as in June, with cars and trucks selling in July at an annual rate of 18.1 million units, up from June's 16.5 million. Gasoline sales rose 2.7%.

Meanwhile, as has been evident in recent department-store releases, sales of clothes and accessories fell 1.3% in July after rising 2.5% in June. Department store sales were down 0.1% while sales at electronics and appliance stores fell 1% and furniture sales fell 1.4%.

Several retailers were among the day's biggest winners. Jewelry merchant Tiffany ( TIF), which posted second-quarter earnings that met its lowered guidance, was up 11% to $23.98. Kitchenware seller Williams-Sonoma ( WSM) was gaining 7% to $22.44.

Among other retailers, discount chain ShopKo ( SKO) was adding 9% to $16.62, and apparel retailer Limited ( LTD) was climbing 7% to $14.61. Clothing seller Abercrombie & Fitch ( ANF) was up 7% to $22.60. Abercrombie is scheduled to report its quarterly results after the close of trading.

Wal-Mart ( WMT), the world's biggest company, was adding 4% to $50.39 after saying second-quarter profits rose 25% as recession-weary consumers sought bargains. The discounter also raised guidance for its third quarter although it left year estimates unchanged.

TJX ( TJX), the owner of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, was up almost 5% to $18.82 after topping estimates by a penny. One company that wasn't participating in the move higher was J.C. Penney ( JCP), which fell 1.6% to $16.49 despite topping expectations and maintaining its guidance. Overall, the sector was advancing, with the Dow Jones U.S. Retail Index up 3%.