March retail sales up 0.4 percent on gasoline

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sales at U.S. retailers rose slightly less than expected in March as rising gasoline prices pulled spending away from other segments and receipts from auto dealerships fell, a government report showed, pointing to slower consumer spending in the first quarter.

Total retail sales increased 0.4 percent, a ninth straight month of gains, the Commerce Department said on Wednesday. March's reading was the weakest since June when sales fell 0.3 percent. February sales were revised up to a 1.1 percent gain from a previously reported 1.0 percent rise.

Economists polled by Reuters had expected retail sales to increase 0.5 percent last month.

Receipts at gasoline stations, which accounted for about 10.7 percent of overall retail sales last month, increased 2.6 percent after rising 2.4 percent in February. Excluding gasoline, retail sales were up a scant 0.1 percent in March after a 0.9 percent rise the prior month.

Compared to March last year, sales were up 7.1 percent. Consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, is expected to slow after growing at a brisk 4.0 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, as rising gasoline and food costs eat into household budgets.

Sales excluding autos rose 0.8 percent last month after increasing 1.1 percent in February, a touch above economists' expectations for a 0.7 percent increase. Auto sales fell 1.7 percent.

Clothing store receipts rose 0.6 percent last month, while sales at building materials and garden equipment suppliers increased 2.2 percent.

So-called core retail sales -- which exclude autos, gasoline and building materials - rose 0.4 percent after a 1.1 percent gain in February.

Core sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of the government's gross domestic product report. Receipts at sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores edged up 0.1 percent.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani, Editing by Andrea Ricci)