Retail Sales

In this Jan. 22 photo, a person walks by a retail clothing store in Valley West Mall in West Des Moines, Iowa. The Commerce Department reported Friday that U.S. retail sales rose 0.3% in January.

WASHINGTON — U.S. retail sales rose a modest 0.3% in January, a slight improvement over December, as unseasonably warm weather boosted sales at hardware stores and furniture stores.

The Commerce Department said Friday that the January advance followed a 0.2% rise in sales in December.

The slight January gain was in line with expectations. However, economists also were expecting to see a solid gain in an underlying control group of retail sales that feeds into the government’s calculations for overall economic growth.

Instead, sales in the control group showed no gain at all in January and the December performance was revised down to show a gain of just 0.2%, slower than the 0.5% rise initially reported.

Economists said the weakness in underlying retail sales was disappointing but likely will be temporary given a number of factors expected to support consumer spending in coming months.

“With jobs growth solid and consumer confidence resilient, we doubt this weakness will persist,” said Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics.

Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of economic growth and economists are counting on consumers to remain strong to offset weakness in other areas of the economy such as trade and business investment.

The overall economy grew at a 2.1% rate in the fourth quarter but consumer spending slowed sharply to a 1.8% growth rate, down from gains of 3.2% in the third quarter and a sizzling 4.8% rise in the second quarter.

For January, auto sales edged up a slight 0.2%, rebounding from a 1.7% plunge in December.

Excluding the volatile auto sector, retail sales would have risen 0.3% January, just half the 0.6% gain in the ex-auto category in December.