WASHINGTON (AP) -- Retail sales fell in December as demand for autos, clothing and appliances all slipped, a disappointing finish to a year in which sales had the largest drop on record.
The weakness in consumer demand highlighted the formidable hurdles facing the economy as it struggles to recover from the deepest recession in seven decades.
The Commerce Department said toda that retail sales declined 0.3 percent in December compared with November, much weaker than the 0.5 percent rise that economists had been expecting. Excluding autos, sales dropped by 0.2 percent, also weaker than the 0.3 percent rise analyst had forecast.
For the year, sales fell 6.2 percent, the biggest decline on records that go back to 1992. The only other year that annual sales fell was in 2008, when they slipped by 0.5 percent.
The 0.3 percent decline in December was the first setback since September, when sales had fallen 2 percent. Sales posted strong gains of 1.2 percent in October and 1.8 percent in November, raising hopes that the consumer is starting to mount a comeback.
Consumer spending is considered critical to any sustained economic revival since consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of total economic activity.
The December drop in sales was a surprise given that the nation's big retailers had reported better-than-expected results last week, reflecting a surge of last-minute holiday shopping. But even with the rebound reported by the nation's biggest chains, these retailers suffered their worst annual performance in more than four decades in 2008, according to data from the International Council of Shopping Centers.
The 6.2 percent fall in the government's retail sales figure is only the second decline on records that go back to 1992. In all other years, even during previous recessions, retail sales, which are not adjusted for inflation, have managed to increase.