By John S. McClenahen No doubt about it. The latest retail sales and jobless claims reports were weaker than expected. But some economists are saying, in so many words, "Don't read too much into these numbers." Retail sales in January were $322.9 billion, down 0.3% from December's mark, the U.S. Commerce Department reported Feb. 12. A major factor: a 3.9% drop in auto sales. Also, notes Merrill Lynch & Co., New York, sales of furniture and building materials were anemic. But putting a positive spin on the report, Merrill points out that "core" retail sales in January -- which excludes autos -- posted "a very strong 0.9% advance." And during the next several months, as people receive relatively large tax refunds, consumption "should remain firm," says Merrill. Initial claims for unemployment benefits rose by 6,000 last week to 363,000, the U.S. Labor Department said on Feb. 12. It was the second consecutive weekly increase after a marked descent from weekly numbers above 400,000. The Labor Department's four-week moving average of initial claims also increased last week, rising to 350,500 from the previous week's revised average of 345,500. The increase may be temporary. The Labor Department attributed the rise in claims during the last two weeks to winter storms, notes UBS Investment Research, New York, which also observes that the number of continuing claims for unemployment benefits, which lags the other reports by a week, continues to decline. "Of course, the test will be whether claims resume their downtrend in coming weeks," concedes UBS.