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US retail sales slow in January

US retail sales rose slightly in January, held back by a drop in auto sales as consumers took a breather after December's holiday shopping season, official data released Wednesday showed.

Retail and food services sales adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday differences rose 0.1 percent from December, matching analysts' average estimate, according to data released by the Commerce Department.

January sales marked a slowdown from the 0.5 percent increase in December during the crucial year-end holiday shopping season.

"The mild gain comes on the heels of two strong months of solid spending activity so some moderation is not a surprise," said Jennifer Lee of BMO Capital Markets.

Sales of motor vehicles and parts, a segment that tends to be volatile month-over-month, fell 0.1 percent in January after jumping 1.2 percent the prior month.

Excluding auto sales, retail sales were up 0.2 percent in January.

General merchandise sales, including department stores, led the January gain, rising 1.1 percent.

Consumers pulled back spending on clothing, down 0.3 percent, and furniture and home furnishing goods, off 0.2 percent, as they spent more on fueling up their tanks, pushing gasoline sales up 0.2 percent.

Online retail sales rose 0.9 percent, while food and bar sales were flat.

On a 12-month basis, retail sales increased 4.4 percent in January, a slightly slower annual pace than December's 4.8 percent rate.

The January sales reading signaled consumers were shutting their wallets after the holiday shopping blitz and as a payroll tax hike kicked in on January 1, part of the "fiscal cliff" government budget deal.

"Today's retail sales report offers a first look at consumer spending in the new quarter, though it may not fully reflect the effect of the New Year's tax hike because gift cards purchased in December boost January sales and because it took a little while for people to realize their taxes had increased," said Chris Low at FTN Financial.

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