Jobless claims decline slightly

WASHINGTON - The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits declined slightly last week, indicating continued strength in the labor market despite a spring slowdown in the economy.

The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for jobless benefits totaled 313,000 last week, a drop of 2,000 from the previous week.

That was a slightly better performance than economists had been expecting. They had forecast that jobless claims would rise by 2,000.

In other economic news, the nation's retailers reported that sales stalled in June as shoppers curbed their spending on other items because of soaring gasoline prices.

As the nation's retailers began reporting their monthly sales early Thursday, disappointments included Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Costco Wholesale Corp. and Limited Brands Inc. Retailers who reported solid sales included Bebe Stores Inc. and Children's Place Retail Stores Inc.

June is considered the second most important month of the year in a retailer's calendar behind December. It is a month when merchants start to clear out summer goods to make room for fall merchandise.

In a third report, the Institute for Supply Management said that its index of activity in the service industry, where most

Americans are employed, dipped in June to a weaker-than-expected reading of 57.

That was down from a reading of 60.1 in May and provided further evidence, analysts said, that the economy is slowing.

''The economy is still growing decently. It's just that it is not surging,'' said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors, a private consulting firm.

The government is scheduled to report new unemployment figures today. Analysts are expecting the jobless rate will remain at 4.6 percent and they believe businesses created 160,000 new jobs in June. That would be a significant rebound after only 75,000 jobs had been created in May, the smallest gain in seven months.