CAR sales might be spluttering to a halt but there are growing signs that other retail sales could soon be revving up. Hong Kong's consumers might not be beating a path to the supermarket, but there are increasing signals that they are not sitting so tightly on their wallets. Taken in isolation, February's sales reinforce the impression of a long winter that has made discount signs a permanent fixture in display windows. Food sales, fuels, clothing and department stores all posted year-on-year falls for March. But they are being compared with a period of exceptional demand fuelled by dizzying price rises for flats and a record-breaking performance by the Hang Seng Index. Growing stability in the property market, expectations of an increase in tourist arrivals, and growth in export and investment spending should result in improved consumer sentiment. During the first three months of the year, retail sales volumes were down by 0.5 per cent compared with about six per cent last year and double-digit growth in 1991 and 1992. But rather than a consumer-led slowdown, there are increasing signs that the economy could be pulling out of a cyclical slump. This turnaround in consumer sentiment will be helped by a plateau in interest rates and related return of confidence to the property and stock markets. Retailers also should be given a welcome boost to business by a pick-up in tourism that will be given greater impetus by the slump in the value of the dollar. According to official statistics, the number of tourists last year increased by about four per cent, compared to nearly 12 per cent in 1993. But the nine million visitors spent more than $64 billion, or one-fifth of total retail turnover. Sales of consumer durables also should begin to pick up as confidence returns to the flat-buying market. It is a different story for the territory's car dealers who have seen the costs of their Japanese and European models rise by more than 10 per cent and motorist demand hit by threatened government action. It is a far cry from the third quarter of 1991 when retail demand was growing by 18 per cent and buyers had to wait several months for their new models. The other drag on demand - but more difficult to assess - could be the territory's unemployment rate which this month hit a nine-year high of about three per cent. But if interest rates do peak, then buying sentiment should improve.