WASHINGTON — Retail apparel prices rose a seasonally adjusted 0.4 percent in May compared with April, the third consecutive monthly gain, as retailers maintained some pricing power despite a weakening economic recovery, the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index showed Thursday.
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On a year-over-year basis, retail apparel prices were 4.4 percent higher than May 2011. Women’s apparel prices were up 0.7 percent in the month and were 5.2 percent higher than a year earlier, while men’s apparel prices increased 0.5 percent and were 4.9 percent higher year-to-year.
The overall CPI fell 0.3 percent in May, driven largely by falling gasoline prices. Core prices, excluding volatile food and energy prices, were up 0.2 percent.
“The fall in pump and grocery prices is offering considerable relief to consumers,” said Chris G. Christopher Jr., senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight. “However, many other prices are still increasing.”
Christopher said falling energy and food prices are “giving a nice little cushion for Americans to deal with poor job prospects, depressed consumer confidence, and falling household net worth. Many businesses will have to pay less for transportation costs, which will put a little less pressure on their margins. However, they may find it difficult to raise their selling prices in this economic environment.”
Ryan Sweet, senior economist at Moody’s Analytics, said, “I think the modest apparel price increase will be temporary. We are seeing global commodity prices come down pretty sharply, including cotton. From a consumers’ perspective, I think there will be relief from apparel prices on the horizon.”
Sweet said these past three months of apparel price increases could still be a reflection of higher cotton prices from last year working their way through the pipeline. Cotton prices have fallen to about 68 cents a pound from 82 cents a month ago and $1.51 a year ago.
“It will become more difficult for retailers to pass on higher prices if the economy doesn’t turn around soon,” he added.
In women’s wear, suits and separates prices rose 2.3 percent in May and were 5.9 percent higher than a year earlier, while outerwear prices fell 4.5 percent last month but were 2.3 percent above May 2011. Dress prices fell 2 percent in May, but were 2.9 percent higher than a year earlier, and prices for the combined underwear, nightwear, sportswear and accessories group declined 0.7 percent in May, but were 4 percent higher year-over-year.
In men’s, furnishings prices rose 3.5 percent for the month and 7.7 percent for the year, while pants and shorts prices increased 1.7 percent last month and 6.9 percent from May 2011. Prices on suits, sportcoats and outerwear rose 0.5 percent in May and 2.4 percent from a year earlier, while shirt and sweater prices fell 2.7 percent in the month, but were 3.2 percent higher year-to-year.