A gauge of US consumer spending rose more than expected in December, suggesting the economy gathered steam at the end of last year and was poised for stronger growth in 2014.

The Commerce Department said today that retail sales excluding cars, petrol, building materials and food services, increased 0.7% last month after a 0.2% rise in November.

The so-called core sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product. Economists polled by Reuters had expected core retail sales to rise by 0.3% in December.

The increase suggested consumer spending accelerated in the fourth quarter from the third quarter's 2% annual pace. It was also the latest indication of strong momentum in the economy at the end of 2013.

Though job growth stumbled in December, that was largely seen as temporary given the cold weather that gripped parts of the country during the month.

Fourth quarter growth prospects were further boosted by a second report from the Commerce Department showing retail inventories, excluding cars, increased 0.6% in November after increasing 0.3% in October.

US businesses aggressively accumulated stock in the third quarter and warehouses were left bulging with unsold stock. That left economists anticipating businesses would need to pull back, which would undercut fourth-quarter GDP growth.

It now appears some of the inventory build-up was planned and consumer spending has been accelerating.

The US economy grew at a 4.1% rate in the third quarter. A stock market rally last year and rising home values have boosted household wealth, encouraging Americans to open their wallets a little bit more.

Core sales last month were lifted by a 1.8% rise in receipts at clothing stores. Sales at food and beverage stores recorded their largest increase in seven years. There were also increases in online store sales.

A cold snap during the month likely contributed to holding down sales of cars. Receipts at car dealers fell 1.8%, the largest decline since October 2012. Car sales had risen 1.9% in November.

That limited overall retail sales to a 0.2% gain in December. Retail sales increased 0.4% in November. Economists had expected retail sales to edge up 0.1% last month. For all of 2013, retail sales rose 4.2%.

Meanwhile, a separate report from the Labor Department showed import prices were unexpectedly flat in December, showing no signs of imported inflation.

Domestic inflation continues to trend lower and the lack of price pressures means the US Federal Reserve will likely keep interest rates near zero for a while even as it scales back its monthly bond purchases.