WASHINGTON (AP) _ Americans opened their wallets and purses to purchase everything from cars to furniture in February, powering retail sales to another strong increase.

The sales _ which represent about a third of the nation's economic output _ jumped 0.9 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted $236.5 billion, the Commerce Department said Thursday.

That came on top of robust gains of 1 percent in January and 1.1 percent in December. And it was the seventh in a row. Both the January and December figures were revised higher from previous estimates, January's substantially, from 0.2 percent.

Auto sales were particularly strong, up 1.8 percent. And sales of everything else rose a healthy 0.6 percent.

Several factors are combining to drive spending higher, including unemployment near a 29-year low, low interest rates, record stock prices as measured by the Dow Jones average of industrial stocks and a substantial increase in federal tax refunds, compared with last year.

Good weather across much of the country encouraged some additional spending as well.

Americans appetite for new goods is helping power brisk economic growth at a time when export sales are soft, thanks to the economic crisis that began in Asia nearly two years ago.

In February, other strong sales gains included furniture, up 1 percent; building supplies and hardware, 1.2 percent; apparel and accessory shops, 1 percent; food stores, 0.9 percent, the most in nearly two years; drug stores, 1.3 percent; restaurants and bars, 0.8 percent, and gasoline stations, 0.8 percent.

Sales at department and other general merchandise stores rose 0.5 percent, a decent increase on top of an extremely strong 2.6 percent advance in January.