Inventories at U.S. wholesalers rose a smaller-than-expected 0.4 percent in December as sales of durable goods like cars and furniture accelerated, the Commerce Department (search) said on Wednesday.

Wall Street economists had expected wholesale inventories (search) to rise 0.9 percent in December. November's inventory gain was revised slightly higher to a 1.2 percent advance, from a first-reported 1.1 percent increase.

Inventories of durable goods (search) — big-ticket items meant to last three years or more — increased 0.3 percent in December as lumber, hardware and machinery inventories rose enough to offset weakness in cars, computers and electrical stocks.

Stocks of non-durables rose 0.5 percent in December, after a 1.2 percent gain in November.

December inventories were up 11.0 percent from a year earlier.

Sales at wholesalers rose 0.9 percent in December, with strong durable goods sales overpowering a small decline in non-durable products like paper, drugs and petroleum.

Sales of durable goods rose 2.3 percent.

Automotive sales, which fell 2.3 percent in November, rose 1.6 percent in December while automotive inventories dropped 1.4 percent.

For 2004 as a whole, sales were up a record 13.8 percent from 2003.

The inventory-to-sales ratio, a measure of how long it would take to deplete stocks at the current sales pace, fell to 1.14 months' worth in December from 1.15 months' worth in November.