By  on March 6, 2011

WASHINGTON — Clothing and accessories stores added to their payrolls in February, while department stores trimmed back as the overall unemployment rate dipped slightly, marking the lowest level in nearly two years.

Apparel specialty stores added 3,000 jobs to employ 1.42 million last month, while department stores cut payrolls by 4,000 jobs in February to 1.49 million. General merchandise stores, a category that includes department stores and discounters, added 2,000 jobs in February to employ 2.99 million.

“Retail overall was pretty weak,” said Marisa Di Natale, an economist with Moody’s Analytics. “We were expecting somewhat of a rebound in retail, considering weakness in January because of the weather, but it doesn’t look like there was much a rebound there, which suggests weather was not as much of a factor [in employment].”

Di Natale said clothing store employment has been rising “fairly steadily” since late 2009, while department stores “have not done nearly as well” and have been flat since the second quarter of 2010.

In the overall economy, the unemployment rate fell to 8.9 percent in February from 9 percent in January — the third consecutive month it has fallen — as employers added 192,000 jobs.

“Unless the shock from the Middle East worsens — an important caveat — an underlying acceleration in payroll growth is on the way,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist with IHS Global Insight. “But weather distortions mean that we can’t say it happened in February.”

Gault noted the overall manufacturing sector had “another strong month,” adding 33,000 jobs overall.

Mills making apparel fabric added 600 jobs in February to employ 120,400. Payrolls at textile product mills, which make mostly home furnishing and industrial fabrics, rose 200 to 115,700. Apparel employment fell 1,200 last month to 156,900.

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