US consumer spending hit the brakes in February, with retail sales sinking unexpectedly in the middle of the year's first quarter, government data showed today. 

However the decline followed upward revisions to sales in January, allowing some hopes for a recovery after a bleak December. 

The weaker-than-expected sales could weigh on growth at the start of 2019, which economists expect will be sharply slower than in previous quarters. 

Total US retail sales fell 0.2% compared to January to a seasonally adjusted $506 billion, whereas economists had been expecting a 0.2% increase. 

This still left February retail sales 2.2% over their level in the same month last year.

US officials also caution that the monthly results are subject to broad margins of error and can be revised significantly. 

Car sales were a bright spot for the month, masking a steep pull-back in sales of electronics, building materials, groceries and clothing. 

Bars and restaurants grew by a token 0.1% while online retailers like Amazon continued their steady ascent. 

The auto sector grew by 0.7%, while sales at gasoline stations rose 1%. 

But excluding autos, sales fell an even steeper 0.4%, also far undershooting expectations for a 0.3% increase. 

Analysts cautioned against reading too much into the weak February numbers, saying that worker pay was still rising strongly even though the boost from the 2017 tax cuts was fading.