Initial unemployment claims rose 11,000 to 444,000 during the week ended January 9, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

Separately, the Commerce Department reported that December retail sales fell 0.3% to $353.0 billion from the prior month.

Both numbers surprised economists, who were expecting a drop of 4,000 in first-time jobless claims and a rise of 0.5% in December retail sales.

The four-week moving average of initial jobless claims, which tends to smooth out spikes, fell 9,000 from the previous week to 440,750, the Labor Department said. That was the lowest the average has been since August, 2008, suggesting the rate of job loss continues to slow.

The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate was 3.5% for the week ending Jan. 2, a decrease of 0.1% from the prior week's unrevised rate of 3.6%. The advance number for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment during the week ending Jan. 2 was 4,596,000, a decrease of 211,000 from the preceding week's revised level of 4,807,000. The 4-week moving average was 4,855,000, a decrease of 151,500 from the preceding week's revised average of 5,006,500.

Retail sales, though down on a sequential basis, were up 5.4% from December 2008. Total sales for 2009 were down 6.2% from the prior year, but sales for the holiday shopping period from October through December rose 1.9% from the same period the year before.