Retail sales as measured by the U.S. government fell last month, but the decline was smaller than expected and mostly reflected a deceleration in the blistering pace of car sales.

The Commerce Department said retail sales fell 0.3% in January to $347.7 billion, compared with a 1.1% increase in December. Excluding auto sales, however, retail receipts climbed 0.6%.

Economists had expected a 0.5% decline in the headline number and a 0.4% increase in the ex-autos reading.

The ex-autos gain was driven by a 0.9% increase in sales at general merchandise stores, a 1.8% increase at gasoline and service stations and a 1.8% increase at clothing and accessories businesses. The gains were offset by a 3.3% decline at auto and auto parts dealers and a 0.6% decline at electronics retailers.

The report is the last major piece of economic news before


Chairman Alan Greenspan begins his semiannual congressional testimony tomorrow. On Feb. 5, the Labor Department said U.S. nonfarm payrolls grew by 146,000 in January, slightly below forecasts.