This story has been updated with closing stock prices. NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- U.S. food and retail sales rose 0.6% in May from April to $421.1 billion, according to the latest Commerce Department figures released on Thursday, beating Wall Street expectations of a 0.4% rise, according to Thomson Reuters. Last month's retail sales were 4.3% above May 2012 figures, the data said. Excluding autos, retail sales rose 0.3% from April 2013, in line with estimates of 0.3% growth and 3.4% above last year. Sales at non-store retailers rose 11.3% from a year earlier. Total sales for the March through May 2013 period rose 3.7% from the same period a year ago. The Commerce Department said that the March to April 2013 percent change was unrevised from a positive 0.1%. Consumers were in the market to purchase autos in May. Auto and other motor vehicle dealer sales rose 1.9% from the prior month, and jumped 9.5% from May 2012. Sales at building material and garden equipment and supplies dealers also had the one of the largest increases month to month, up 0.9% from April and 10.1% compared to a year earlier, compared to other categories. On the other hand, sales at furniture and home furnishing stores fell 0.8% month over month. Also see: Lululemon Tanks as CEO Exit Leaves Retailer Floundering Improved consumer confidence and spending helped drive retail sales in May, according to the National Retail Federation. "Stronger employment data and increasing home and equity prices lifted confidence and spending this spring," NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a statement. "The economy is improving, albeit slowly, but we still have a long way to go. Stagnant salaries continue to constrain further economic acceleration. While sequester and tax increases dampened sales growth in the first quarter, it appears that the economy absorbed most of the blow." Also see: Vera Bradley Drops, American Apparel Pops: Retail Roundup (Update 1) The data follows positive reports last week on May same-store sales growth from the 11 retail companies that still issue monthly sales. Excluding the drug stores, the Thomson ReutersSame Store Sales Index rose 5.6% for May, beating its 4.7% final estimate. Including the drug store sector, same-store sales growth drops to a positive 4.8%, still above its final estimate of 3.7%. "The 5.6%
same-store sales result is the strongest showing since November 2012 when the index was 6.9%," Thomson analyst Gregory Harrison wrote in a June 6 note. "Improved weather played an important part in boosting May retail numbers. Moreover, retailers benefited from improved mall traffic and sales promotions that drew more shoppers to spend." Harrison expects growth of 2.2% in quarterly same-store sales for the 78 retailers in its quarterly index (ahead of 1.9% rise the year prior), he wrote. Gap ( GPS), American Apparel ( APP) and Stein Mart ( SMRT) each posted strong May results that beat expectations, up 7%, 10% and 8.2%, respectively. Looking ahead, Thomson Reuters Quarterly Same Store Sales Index, which consists of 78 retailers, is expected to post 2.2% growth for Q2 (vs. 1.9% in Q2 2012). Retail sector stocks surged on Thursday. The S&P 500 Retailing Index rose 1.2% to 789.41. Big winners on Thursday included Ann Taylor ( ANN), up 3.9% to $32.27, Guess ( GES) shares up 3.7% to $31.51 and Sears ( SHLD) up 4.7% to $47.18. Michael Kors ( KORS) fell 1.6% to $59.53 and luxury jewelry retailer Tiffany ( TIF) slipped 1.3% to $75.30. -- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York. Follow @LKulikowski To contact Laurie Kulikowski, send an email to: Laurie.Kulikowski@thestreet.com. >To submit a news tip, email: email@example.com. Follow TheStreet on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.