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SEOUL, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Sales at South Korea's top department stores rose for the second straight month in December, preliminary government data showed on Tuesday, but the pick-up may be too modest to suggest the country's economy is staging a firm turnaround.
Sales at department stores run by Hyundai Department Store Co Ltd, Lotte Shopping Co Ltd and Shinsegae Co Ltd rose 0.7 percent from a year earlier, the finance ministry estimated in its monthly report.
It was the first time in a year that department store sales had risen for two consecutive months, but the ministry said sales growth in December was weighed down by unusually cold weather and heavy snow.
Sales at the country's top discount stores fell 5.9 percent from a year earlier, marking the third consecutive month of contraction and deteriorating from a 1.7 percent year-on-year fall in November.
The data underscored views that Asia's fourth-largest economy did not have a sharp pick-up in the October-December quarter.
"Conditions for private consumption like inflation and employment are favourable, but the recovery in consumer sentiment continues to be delayed," the finance ministry said.
Sales of locally produced automobiles rose 7.5 percent last month from a year earlier, the data showed, as consumers sought to take advantage of an expiring tax break.
But gasoline sales by volume fell 5.8 percent, as the heavy snow during the month discouraged driving.
Separately, the finance ministry said weak investment and increased exchange-rate volatility continued to pose risks to the domestic economy amid uncertainties stemming from worries about the U.S. debt limit and the euro zone's delayed economic recovery.
The Ministry of Knowledge Economy will release final December sales figures for department and discount store sales later this month. (Reporting By Se Young Lee; Editing by Chris Gallagher)