WASHINGTON (AP) _ Retail sales rose in September for the fourth consecutive month as increases at furniture stores and auto showrooms helped offset a slump at department and clothing stores.

The 0.3 percent increase, to a seasonally adjusted $215.5 billion, followed stronger gains in June, July and August, the Commerce Department said today.

Sales had slumped in March, April and May as unseasonably chilly weather kept shoppers home. Retailers said unseasonable warmth, on the other hand, discouraged customers from buying new fall clothing last month. And the death and funeral of Princess Diana had some watching television instead of shopping.

Receipts at department stores and other general merchandisers fell 0.6 percent, while sales dropped 0.7 percent at clothing and accessory shops. Both were the sharpest declines in five months.

The overall performance in September was a bit stronger than many economists expected. Still, it fits with their belief the economy's growth is moderating. The question is whether the moderation is enough to persuade the Federal Reserve to refrain from raising short-term interest rates to cool growth and squelch any incipient inflation pressures.

Auto sales last month rose 0.6 percent, the fourth consecutive advance but not nearly as strong as increases in the previous three months. Furniture dealers also reported a 0.6 percent increase in September, the sixth month without a decline.

Sales fell 0.5 percent, the second consecutive drop, at hardware stores, garden centers and building supply outlets. They rose 1.4 percent at food stores, only the second gain in six months. Sales also increased at drug stores and gas stations but fell at restaurants and bars.