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Retail sales rose by a modest 0.3 percent in March, the weakest showing since January, as prospects for stronger sales spurred by an early Easter were trumped by cold weather in much of the country and rising fuel costs.

The Commerce Department reported today that the March increase followed a stronger 0.5 percent sales increase in February and represented the smallest advance since a meager 0.1 percent rise in January. The increase was significantly below market expectations for a 0.8 percent surge in sales.

The strength last month came in auto sales which were up a strong 0.7 percent, the best showing since a 4.2 percent surge in sales last December. However, that strength was offset by a 0.7 percent decline at department stores and an even larger 1.9 percent drop at clothing specialty stores.