The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - In a sign that the economy may be slowing, retail sales were weaker than expected in April as soaring gasoline prices forced consumers to cut back on spending in other areas.

Retail sales rose by 0.5 percent last month following a 0.6 percent advance in March, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

The April increase was weaker than the 0.8 percent Wall Street had been expecting and was disappointing in light of reports last week of strong April sales at the nation's big chain stores, reflecting warmer-than-usual weather and a late Easter that boosted clothing sales.

On Wall Street, rising prices for oil and other commodities raised inflation fears and sent stock prices plunging. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 141.92 points to close at 11,500.73. It was the biggest one-day sell-off since the Dow fell by 213 points on Jan. 19.

The government report on retail sales showed that virtually all of the strength last month came from a big 4.6 percent jump in sales at gasoline stations. That reflected a sharp rise in prices with gasoline selling near $3 per gallon in many parts of the country, up about 50 cents since early March.

Excluding gasoline sales, retail sales rose a minuscule 0.1 percent in April, raising concerns among economists about how much strength the consumer sector will provide in coming months if gasoline prices stay elevated.

"When you exclude gasoline sales, which were propelled by huge price increases, households didn't buy an awful lot in April," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors.

Analysts worried about the impact on the overall economy if consumer demand does weaken. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of total economic growth and has been a standout performer in the current economic expansion.

"The persistence of high gasoline prices will continue to siphon gains in other retail sales categories in the second quarter," said Brian Bethune, an economist at Global Insight.

The overall economy grew at a sizzling 4.8 percent rate in the first three months of the year, but analysts believe growth in the second quarter will slow to around 3.5 percent.

David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors, said such a slowdown is just what the Federal Reserve is hoping will occur to make sure inflation pressures do not worsen.

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