US retail sales rose by 0.3 per cent in March from the month before, less than half the expected increase. Some US stores had earlier reported a slow start to early spring sales, saying poor weather and other factors discouraged shoppers.

Sales in department stores and clothing fell in the period, while food services and bar sales increased. Sales at general stores, including department stores, were down by $310m in March.

The US Census Bureau said on Wednesday all sales rose to $339.3bn from $338.4bn, adjusted for seasonal factors and holiday and trading day differences.

The sales increase was below that in February, when sales rose 0.5 per cent - revised up from 0.4 per cent.

Sales for the January through March 2005 period were up 7.2 per cent from the same period a year ago.

Petrol station sales were up 17.8 per cent from March last year as rising oil prices fed through to gasoline sales. Nonstore retail sales, meanwhile, jumped 13.4 per cent from last year as the trend towards online retail selling gathered pace.

Gasoline station sales were up by $600m on the month to $29.65bn, while building materials and garden supplies sales rose $407m from February to $26.78bn.

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