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Apparel, Accessories Sales Down in Dec.

Holiday selling finished strong, but there were a few soft spots such as apparel and accessories sales, which fell 0.6 percent in December.

WASHINGTON — The holiday selling season ended on a solid note overall, but there were a few weak pockets, including apparel and accessories store sales, which fell a seasonally adjusted 0.6 percent in December, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

Despite the mixed picture for December, the report showed strong sales growth in all retail sectors in 2004 over 2003. Sales at apparel and accessories stores rose 3.3 percent last year, while sales at general merchandise stores increased 7 percent and sales at department stores were up 1.3 percent.

Sales at apparel and accessories stores, which also fell in November, dropped to $15.89 billion in December, while sales at general merchandise stores rose 0.7 percent for the month to $43.1 billion and sales at department stores increased 0.2 percent to $17.9 billion.

The report showed consumers generally loosened their purse strings for the holidays and gave retailers a needed boost. Sales at all retailers during December rose an unexpected 1.2 percent against November and were fueled by strong increases in auto sales, which were up 9 percent from a year ago.

“It shows that consumers have a great deal of fire power,” said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research. “When you consider there is relatively little inflation in the retail sector, it really shows an amazing ability on the part of consumers to go out and shop.”

Rosalind Wells, chief economist at the National Retail Federation, said November and December sales combined in the GAFS category, which includes general merchandise stores; clothing and clothing and accessories units; furniture and home furnishings stores; electronics and appliance retailers, and sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores, rose 5.7 percent — “the strongest growth since 1999, and higher than last year’s 5.1 percent increase.”

“Even after all of the hand-wringing by retail analysts, the holiday season ended on a strong footing,” Wells said in a statement. “Post-holiday discounting and gift card redemptions helped provide a last-minute surge in spending.”

The NRF had been predicting a 4.5 percent increase in GAFS sales since September.

“Though we were projecting a solid holiday season, the final outcome was better than we expected it would be,” said Tracy Mullin, president and chief executive officer of NRF.

Steidtmann pointed out, however, that electronics sales have weakened, falling 0.2 percent in December, but showing an increase of 3.3 percent against a year ago.

“One of the surprising elements of this report was electronics were weak,” Steidtmann said. “It tends to be home-related and the housing market weakened in the fall.”

He noted that catalogue and Internet sales were strong, posting a 1.9 percent increase in December and a 14.3 percent gain over a year ago.