US retail sales increased unexpectedly in January, raising hopes that a consumer recession may yet be avoided.

Analysts had expected a sales decline last month, after a 0.4 per cent slide in December, but sales edged up by 0.3 per cent. Although the rise was driven by petrol and car sales, there was still a 0.1 per cent rise after petrol was stripped out.

However, some sectors failed to match the overall figure. Department store sales fell 1.1 per cent and furniture sales slid 0.5 per cent.

The data had been eagerly awaited because economists believed that a consumer downturn could be the tipping point that would pitch the US into recession.