Total retail sales slipped 0.2 percent, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday, after a downwardly revised 0.3 percent increase in April.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales falling 0.4 percent from April's previously reported 0.5 percent rise.
In the 12 months to May, retail sales were up 7.7 percent.
Retail sales last month were depressed by a 2.9 percent drop in sales of motor vehicles, the largest decline since February 2010, as a shortage of parts following the earthquake in Japan left inventories lean and prompted manufacturers to raise prices.
Excluding autos, retail sales rose 0.3 percent last month, the smallest gain since July, after rising 0.5 percent in April.
The report was the latest in a series of weak data to show the lull in economic activity extending well into the second quarter. The economy started the year on a soft note beset by bad weather and rising oil prices.
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