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January retail sales post 0.5 percent gain

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By Martin Crutsinger

WASHINGTON (AP) — Retail sales posted a better-than-expected increase in January, a welcome development that could mean stronger economic growth in coming months.

The Commerce Department said Friday that retail sales increased by 0.5 percent last month, the best showing since November and better than the 0.3 percent increase economists had expected.

Excluding autos, sales posted a 0.6 percent reading, also better than expected, with strength coming from a surge at general merchandise stores, a category that includes big national chains such as those owned by Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Strength in consumer spending is important because it accounts for 70 percent of economic activity. Economists are worried that the spending gains since last summer could falter given the tough times facing many U.S. households and that weakness could derail the fledgling recovery.

The overall economy grew at an annual rate of 5.7 percent in the October-December period, the best showing in six years, but the concern is that this growth could slow considerably in coming months as the impact of the government's stimulus programs begins to fade and unemployment remains stubbornly high.


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