By  on October 16, 2006

WASHINGTON — Consumers were more willing to spend in September, driving sales up a seasonally adjusted 3 percent at apparel and accessories stores and 1 percent at department stores compared with August, according to the Commerce Department's retail sales report released Friday.

Against a year earlier, sales at apparel and accessories stores jumped 10.7 percent in September, to $18.5 billion, and department store sales inched up 2.3 percent, to $17.9 billion.

"The story in September was really the lift that you saw in the apparel categories," said Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "This month, there was a bout of cooler than normal weather that really caused clothing and seasonal apparel to take off."

A price-driven sales decline of 9.3 percent at gas stations dragged total retail and food service sales down a seasonally adjusted 0.4 percent for the month. Lower gasoline prices figured prominently in the projections of some economists.

"The headline figures don't show it, but there's certainly a party going on out there," said Richard Yamarone, chief economist of Argus Research Corp.

Yamarone said the 10.7 percent year-over-year rise at apparel and accessories stores was "dazzling, to say the very least," and consumer spending remains strong.

"A lot depends on oil," he said. "It's the only real disruption we've had. Bottom line: Consumers are still employed, and they're still earning solid income."

The drop-off in gas prices prompted Global Insight to take a more upbeat view of the consumer. The forecasting group's chief economist, Nariman Behravesh, said in a report: "This slide is like a tax cut worth a little less than $100 billion, or 1 percent of disposable income. This will cushion the blow from the housing crunch."

Global Insight expects consumer spending to grow by 2.5 percent to 3 percent over the next year.

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