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Shoppers are seen at the Toronto Eaton Centre in Toronto.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Canada's retailers have never had it better.

Consumers continued their free-spending ways in April, pushing retail sales to a 0.8 per cent gain from the prior month and bringing the total increase since the beginning of the year to 3.6 per cent, Statistics Canada reported Thursday. That matches the best start to a year in data back to 1991.

The figures highlight how much consumers – buoyed by strong employment growth – have powered the nation's economy out of an oil crash, generating growth that is among the highest in the developed world. At the same time, that's raising concern the increases may not be sustainable, with much of the spending fueled by the wealth effects from a soaring real estate market.

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Economists surveyed by Bloomberg News anticipated a 0.3 per cent gain, the median forecast.

Thursday's data should bolster confidence in economist projections that the economy continued to expand at a pace of about 2 per cent in the second quarter, after a 3.7 per cent annualized gain in the first quarter.

Other Key Points The gain in retail sales in April was powered by the country's two biggest provinces: Quebec (1.6 per cent) and Ontario (1 per cent).

Excluding car and parts dealers, retail sales were up 1.5 per cent in April and has gained 4 per cent since the start of the year. That's the best start on record.

The gains so far this year have been driven by actual new sales rather than price increases. Volume sales were up 0.3 per cent in April and the 3.3 per cent year-to-date gain is also a record start.

The year-to-date increase in total retail sales matches a record start also recorded in 1999 and again in 2006.

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