U.S. spending levels at sporting goods, apparel and footwear stores during the first quarter were running 5 to 8 percent ahead of their levels a year earlier, advance estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau Monday indicate.

The agency’s advance month estimate for retail sales in March generally surpassed expectations and prompted some economists to wonder if the economy is growing faster than they thought.

Advance estimates of retail sales at sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores reached $21.1 billion in March, up 0.5 percent from February, and up 5.4 percent from March 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. First quarter sales by those stores were up 3.5 and 6.0 percent respectively from the fourth and first quarters of last year.

Clothing and clothing accessories stores sales were up 0.9 percent from February and 7.9 percent from March 2011. First quarter sales were up 3.8 percent from the fourth quarter of 2011 and 7.9 percent from the first quarter of 2011.
By comparison, advance estimates of total U.S. retail and food services sales for March were up 0.8 percent (±0.5 percent) from the previous month and 6.5 percent (±0.7 percent) above March 2011. Total sales for the first quarter were up 6.4 percent (±0.5 percent) from the same period a year ago.

Sales by non-store retailers, which includes online stores and catalogs, were up 9.3 percent (±3.0 percent) from last year.