How the Warm Winter Is Mother Nature’s Mini Stimulus Program

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Signs indicate that the mild non-winter of 2011-2012 is giving the economy a much-needed boost. Warm weather has helped employment in fields such as construction, and also helped consumers save on heating bills. More jobs, and a little more money in American consumers’ pockets, have meant increased spending at places such as home improvement stores, and even a rise in car sales.

A mild winter can cause havoc for certain kinds of retail sales. Apparel stores have struggled to sell winter coats and cold-weather gear, even with major discounts, and hardware stores haven’t been able to sell as many shovels, snowblowers, bags, of salt, and other snow-coping products as they’d like.

But overall, the current winter—if you want to call it that—has done wonders for home improvement retailers. Reuters reports that sales at Home Depot and Lowe’s have been extraordinarily good, especially for items that normally don’t fare well in the winter such as paint and concrete. Sales for both big-box retailers for the recent quarter exceeded expectations, with Lowes’ sales rising 11%. The two chains also plans to hire 110,000 seasonal workers between them.

(MORE: The Economic Upside of a Warm Winter)

Apparently, springtime—and spring-type home projects—have come early for many Americans. But it isn’t just the weather that’s causing consumers to skip their usual spending hibernations this winter.

USA Today recently highlighted some of the job-creating effects of the warm winter. In the typical January, 424,000 workers are laid off because of the cold weather. But the January 2012 unemployment report noted that less than half that figure (206,000) had been hit with weather-related layoffs. What’s more, the construction industry—which is about as weather-related as jobs get—added 52,000 jobs in December and January. That’s after it had added only 32,000 jobs in a full 12 months before that.

Granted, in the grand employment scheme these figures are tiny, but every bit helps.

NPR, meanwhile, notes that because of warmer weather this year the average consumer will spend $643 this winter on natural gas. During the 2008-’09 winter, by contrast, the average bill was $888.

(MORE: Mild Winter Could Mean Best-Ever Deals on Winter Coats and Cold-Weather Gear)

With jobs—and without the usual burden of winter expenses such as huge heating bills, and perhaps a new coat or snowblower—some consumers seem to be game to spend money in ways usually seen during the warmer months. Auto sales last month, for instance, rose 11.4% compared to January of last year.

If consumers are spending at above-average levels in the winter, though, we could see a spring in which sales are tepid. A homeowner who pours a new cement walkway in February, after all, doesn’t need to pour a cement walkway in May. Ditto for new car sales.

Also, while we might all be feeling a little richer this winter due to smaller heating bills, we’re all likely to feel much poorer in the days to come—as gas prices approach $4 a gallon around the country.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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