SEOUL, April 9 (Reuters) - Sales at South Korea's top department store chains rose in March at the fastest rate in four months, preliminary government data showed on Tuesday, suggesting that private consumption in Asia's fourth-largest economy may be starting to improve.
Sales at department stores run by Hyundai Department Store , Lotte Shopping and Shinsegae last month rose by 5.9 percent from a year earlier, the finance ministry estimated in a monthly report. The result compared with a 1.7 percent year-on-year rise in February and marked the strongest growth since November 2012.
The pickup mirrors the Bank of Korea's consumer sentiment index for March reaching the highest level in nearly a year and suggests that depressed domestic demand could improve in coming months.
The finance ministry said modest inflation and effects of various government stimulus measures to be implemented in coming weeks will lead to a gradual pickup in private consumption.
Sales at the country's top three discount store chains last month fell 4.5 percent from a year earlier, however, after having risen by 8.9 percent in February, due to an increase in number of mandatory closing days as part of the government's policy to support smaller shopowners.
Sales of locally produced automobiles fell 1.0 percent from a year earlier in March, moderating from a 13.5 percent decline in February.
Gasoline sales by volume rose 7.3 percent in March, reversing a 8.0 percent decline in February. (Reporting by Se Young Lee; Editing by Eric Meijer)