By John S. McClenahen Score one for the economic forecasters. They figured January retail sales in the U.S. would be down 0.2% from December's mark, and that's exactly the percentage that the U. S. Commerce Department's Bureau of the Census reported on Feb. 13. Census' advance figures put January 2002's retail sales at $295.7 billion, down 0.2% from December 2001's revised mark but 2.8% better than January 2001's level. At Merrill Lynch & Co., New York, Senior Economist Stan Shipley expects that U.S. consumer spending "will soften in coming months as layoffs continue to take a toll." However, in what is an increasingly common forecast among economists, Shipley says that "as factories ramp up production, income growth and consumer sentiment should improve and set the stage for healthy consumption in the second half of this year."