Retail sales, held back by lagging car buying, rose a scant 0.1 percent in May after a relatively rare decline in April, the government said.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that sales increased $119 million last month to a seasonally adjusted $131.9 billion.It was the sixth increase in seven months, but it was the second consecutive weak report. The figures are not adjusted to take inflation into account.

Most economists had been expecting a slightly stronger 0.4 percent gain. Initial sales statistics are revised heavily in subsequent months, however, and the May increase could prove to be stronger.

Analysts said the preliminary May report, evidence of weak consumer demand, could somewhat ease the fears of those who believe inflationary pressures are building in the economy.

The May increase followed a 0.4 percent decline in April, revised upward from the previously reported 0.6 percent drop, and strong gains of 1.6 percent in March and 1.1 percent in February.

Lackluster sales in April had been attributed to the fact that Easter fell early in the month than usual, pushing holiday buying back into March.

Sales in May were held back by a 1.2 percent fall in automotive sales to $29.3 billion. That followed a 0.8 percent drop in April.

Excluding autos, sales rose 0.5 percent in May following a 0.3 percent decline.

Sales of durable goods, "big ticket" items expected to last three ormore years, were down 0.6 percent while non-durable goods were up 0.5 percent.

The department offered these details of May sales:

-Department and other general merchandise stores, down 0.1 percent after a 1.2 percent drop in April.

-Hardware and garden supply stores, up 0.2 percent after a month of no change in April.

-Furniture and appliance stores, down 0.2 percent, following a strong 1.3 percent jump a month earlier.

-Food and grocery stores, up 1.3 percent after a slight 0.1 percent drop.

-Gasoline, up 0.6 percent after a 0.7 percent decline.

-Specialty clothing stores, up 1.7 percent; restaurants and bars, down 0.5 percent, and drug stores, up 0.4 percent.