Consumers kept tighter grip on their wallets in March and sent the Commerce Department's closely watched measure of retail sales down 1.1%, wiping out marginal gains during the first two months of the year and stoking fears that the recession may linger.

The U.S. Census Bureau, which compiles the estimates, said March sales were$344.4 billion, a decrease of 1.1% from February and 9.4% below March 2008.Total sales for the January through March 2009 period were down 8.8% from the same period a year ago. The January 2009 to February 2009 percent change was revised from -0.1% to +0.3%.

Retail trade sales were down 1.1% from February 2009 and 10.7% below last year. Gasoline stations sales were down 34.0% from March 2008 and motor vehicle and parts dealers sales were down 23.5% from last year.