NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Retail sales in the United States fell in January, the government said Thursday, defying Wall Street expectations, due to a bigger-than-expected decline in automobile sales.
The Commerce Department said retail sales fell 0.3 percent to a seasonally adjusted $322.9 billion after rising a revised 0.2 percent in December. Excluding volatile automobile sales, retail sales rose 0.9 percent to $after rising a revised 0.2 percent in December.
Economists, on average, expected sales to be unchanged and sales excluding autos to rise 0.5 percent, according to Briefing.com.
Separately, the Labor Department said new weekly claims for unemployment benefits were higher last week than analysts expected.
U.S. stock market futures fell after the reports, pointing to a negative opening on Wall Street, while Treasury bond prices were little changed.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was scheduled to repeat his semi-annual monetary policy report to Congress at 10:00 a.m. ET before the Senate Banking Committee.
On Wednesday, Greenspan said the economy was poised for healthy growth in 2004, but seemed less certain about how much the labor market and inflation would rebound.
Despite several quarters of economic growth, including a blistering pace in the second half of 2003, jobs have been much harder to come by than in other economic recoveries. Some economists worry that, if labor market weakness persists, keeping wage growth slow, consumer confidence and spending could weaken.
Still, most economists believe stronger job growth is close at hand, and they believe large tax-refund checks will help support consumer spending through the first half of the year in any event.
Economists pay close attention to consumer spending, which makes up more than two-thirds of the total economy.
In January, sales of autos and auto parts dropped 3.9 percent after gaining 0.2 percent in December. But sales at gas stations rose 1.7 percent, following December's 0.2-percent gain.
Sales were healthy in other areas, too. Sales at general merchandise stores were 1 percent higher, compared with a 0.3-percent gain in December. Clothing sales rose 2.9 percent after December's 0.2-percent decline.
Electronics sales edged up 0.2 percent, following a 0.1-percent gain in December. Furniture sales, however, fell 0.9 percent after being flat in December.