By  on December 16, 2005

WASHINGTON — Retail prices for women's apparel rose a seasonally adjusted 1.6 percent in November, but were still 1.5 percent below year-ago levels, according to the Labor Department's Consumer Price Index, released Thursday.

In the broader economy, retreating energy prices led to a 0.6 percent drop in retail prices for all goods and services last month, the sharpest decline since 1949. Excluding energy and food items, a closely watched measure of inflation, prices inched up 0.2 percent.

Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research, said that, while the overall economy is "pretty strong," there is a slate of issues that might hold back the consumer over the coming months. These include a rise in energy prices, increasing debt levels and changes in credit card laws requiring higher minimum payments.

"Probably the biggest unknown and the one that can have at least the biggest short-term impact is energy prices," he said.

Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board, agreed consumers could tighten up, especially as they're paying more not only to heat their homes but also to fill their carts at the grocery store.

"Don't expect the consumer to be out there spending a whole lot of money in January, February or March on anything but keeping the house warm," said Goldstein. "Don't expect all those women to be running into stores to buy clothing ... it's not going to be that great a season."

Apparel prices have been trending down for some time and are lower in absolute terms than they were a decade ago, said Goldstein.

"It's a bargain to begin with and if you have to discount a bargain, what's that telling you about the market for apparel overall?" he said.

The steepest price decreases within the women's apparel category came in outerwear, which saw a 1.4 percent drop in November and a 3.9 percent decrease against a year ago. Suits and separate prices were on the upswing for the month, rising 2.3 percent, though that level was still 3.1 percent below a year earlier.

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