According to the Commerce Department, sales dropped 2.7 percent last month, as retailers endured the worst holiday shopping season in nearly four decades.
The report brought out the bears on Wall Street, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost about 230 points.
Markets remained volatile the rest of the week as investors digested multibillion-dollar losses reported by Bank of America and Citigroup.
After a marathon negotiating session, the Bush administration agreed early Friday to give Bank of America an additional $20 billion to help it weather losses at Merrill Lynch, which the company acquired Jan. 1.
The latest infusion exhausts the first half of the government's $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program for the financial sector.
The Bush administration's oversight of the bailout has been sharply criticized by members of Congress. Nevertheless, the Senate voted Thursday to release the second $350 billion, after the incoming Obama administration pledged to use more of the money for consumer relief.
Senate lawmakers also heard from several nominees of President-elect Obama's cabinet this week, including the man he wants at the helm of the Agriculture Department.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas: "There's a lot of criticism of agriculture recently, much of it coming from folks who either don't understand or appreciate what I call production agriculture. And I hope that we don't ignore the person who produces the food and fiber for this country and I hope you are a champion in that regard.
Gov. Tom Vilsack, D-Iowa 1999-2007: "I do appreciate the diversity of agriculture and that it's the job of the USDA to be responsive and representative of all of that diversity and to be supportive of that diversity...These are hard working people, these are folks that have a value system that is not just important to them I would argue that it's important to us, to this country. It is about family, it is about faith, it is about community, it is about hard work, and it's about getting up every morning recognizing that what you do doesn't just impact your family, it doesn't just feed your family but it feeds a lot of families."
Vilsack, a champion of biofuels, reiterated his support for ethanol production and promotion as well as research and development.
Gov. Tom Vilsack, D-Iowa 1999-2007: "But it is important to maintain the infrastructure because if you're going to transition, at some point in time, to cellulosic ethanol, you have to have the capacity to produce it. And you don't want the hundreds of millions of dollars, billions of dollars, that's already been invested not to be fully utilized."
If confirmed, Vilsack would assume the helm of a massive federal agency with a $95 billion annual budget and more than 100,000 employees. He would be charged with administrating a $290 billion Farm Bill containing 600 provisions. But his most arduous task may be managing the fallout from USDA's loss in a landmark civil rights case.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Chair, Senate Agriculture Committee: "Among the most intractable challenges facing the new secretary of agriculture is the intolerable and inexcusable state of civil rights in USDA's agricultural programs for USDA employees"
Gov. Tom Vilsack, D-Iowa 1999-2007: "Discrimination in any form will not be tolerated in this department."
While farm programs often draw criticism as wasteful spending, nearly 75 percent of the Farm Bill budget is designated for nutrition programs like food stamps, school lunch initiatives, and food pantries. And Vilsack made it clear he understands the importance of social programs for many Americans.
Gov. Tom Vilsack, D-Iowa 1999-2007: "This is a powerful, rich country and none of us should be satisfied that there are children going to bed hungry."
Vilsack is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate next week.