Washington A steep decline in car buying depressed sales at the nation's retailers by 0.3 percent last month, although consumers continued spending heartily in less expensive ways.
The overall decline -- the first since September -- was reported by the Commerce Department Thursday. It largely reflected a sharp drop in sales of automobiles. When auto sales -- which tend to swing widely from month to month -- are removed, sales at all other merchants rose by a strong 0.9 percent in January -- the biggest gain in five months.
"Though the first month of the year is traditionally slow, retailers should be pleased that consumers are still spending after the holiday season," said Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation.
Consumers opened their pocketbooks and wallets in January to buy clothing, food, sporting goods, books, music, and electronics and appliances. But those gains were more than offset by cutbacks in spending to buy cars and to purchase building and garden supplies, thus producing the overall decrease in sales.
The overall retail sales figure showing a 0.3 percent dip was weaker than the flat showing economists were expecting. But sales -- excluding automobiles -- were stronger than the 0.5 percent increase they were forecasting.