Shoppers in the euro zone cut back on their spending in February after an unexpectedly strong start to the year in a sign that households are struggling with stubborn inflation, rising unemployment and government cuts afflicting the bloc.

Retail sales in the 17 countries using the euro fell 0.1 percent in February from January, the European Union's statistics office Eurostat said on Wednesday. Economists polled by Reuters expected sales volumes to be unchanged in the month.

In an indication that household demand will do little to help the depressed euro zone economy as it heads into recession this year, retail sales were down 2.1 percent on an annual basis. That compared with a forecast of a 0.9 percent fall.

Consumers surprised economists in January by increasing their spending after four months of falls, but in February cautious shoppers, particularly in Germany, appeared to lose some of their confidence.

Retail sales fell 1.1 percent in Germany, the euro zone's top economy, in February, and volumes also slipped in Austria and Portugal, Eurostat said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by John O'Donnell)