Feb. Retail Sales Fall 0.6%

Washington, D.C. U.S. retail sales fell an unexpectedly strong 0.6% in February from the prior month as consumers coped with rising oil and food prices, a government report showed Thursday. Core retail sales, excluding auto sales, dipped by 0.2%, the Commerce Department said.

With consumer spending the main engine of the U.S. economy, the February report showing Americans were closing their wallets heightened concerns that the world's biggest economy is falling into, or already is in, recession.

Auto sales fell 1.9%. Gasoline prices were off approximately 2% last month and the price effect helped produce a 1% decline in gas-station sales.

Meanwhile, grocery store sales fell 0.3% from January to February despite widespread increases in food costs.

General merchandise stores, including discounters such as Target and Wal-Mart, were the major exception to the retreat in consumer spending, posting a 0.4% increase for February.

Clothing, health-care and sporting-goods stores also reported sales increases for the month. But housing-related and other generally big-ticket stores including furniture, electronic