WASHINGTON — Sales of merchant wholesalers fell 0.8% to $415.4 billion in January, while inventories rose 1.2% to $504.4 billion, the Commerce Department reported Friday.

The January sales decline followed an unrevised virtually unchanged December. The drop in the sales figure contrasted with the expectations of economists polled by Thomson Reuters, who expected a median 0.2% increase.

Sales of durable goods were up 0.7%, while non-durable goods plummeted 2.1% on the back of a 4.5% drop in petroleum sales. Overall, the January sales figure was 3% above the level for the same month a year ago.

Inventories grew 1.2% after rising a revised 0.1% the previous month, originally reported as a 0.1% decline, Commerce reported. The 1.2% advance was the largest monthly inventory gain since an equally large upswing in December 2011.

The January inventory gain was expected by economists, but the actual number far exceeded their projection of a 0.3% increase. Durables were up 1.1% and nondurables rose 1.2%. The figure got a boost from a 6.2% gain in drug inventories, the largest for that category since a 6.6% gain in October 1996.

The January inventory level was 6.5% above the level of a year ago.

January's inventories/sales ratio for merchant wholesalers, except manufacturers' sales branches and offices, was 1.21, above both the 1.19 December ratio and the 1.17 ratio a year ago.

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