WASHINGTON — The willingness of shoppers to spend may have been a saving grace for September, but economists are worried that price increases, especially for gas and heating oil, will chill holiday season sales.
Prices on all goods and services, which were affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, shot up a seasonally adjusted 1.2 percent for the month, the biggest jump in the Labor Department's Consumer Price Index in more than 25 years. Energy prices increased 12 percent, but have yet to seriously impact retail sales.
"If energy prices stay at current levels, we could run into a more substantial loss of household purchasing power this winter," said John Lonski, team managing director of the Moody's Investors Service economic group, noting some heating bills could soar 45 to 75 percent. "The question is the degree to which consumers cut back on discretionary spending. Each energy price shock that resembles that of today's since the 1960s has either coincided with or preceded a recession. The warning would be: Be careful about building up inventories for the holiday shopping season."
On the upside, J.P. Morgan Chase economist James Glassman said there are not yet signs of inflation outside of energy prices, but that doesn't mean those higher prices won't ultimately hurt consumer spending.
"You don't need numbers to know there's a squeeze building," said Glassman. "There's a major squeeze building. There's not a whole lot of money left over. For a while, we're going to have to adjust to higher energy prices. I'm cautious. I think we're going to go through a little bit of a slowdown."
A gallon of regular gasoline sold for an average of $2.82 on Friday, a 41.6 percent jump from a year earlier, according to the American Automobile Association.
Retailers overall have held up pretty well, though fashion merchants aren't keeping up with the overall trend. Total retail and food sales rose a seasonally adjusted 0.2 percent during September and were up 6.5 percent against a year earlier, according to the Commerce Department's monthly sales reading, released Friday.
Sales at apparel and accessories stores retreated 0.2 percent during the month to $16.67 billion, but were still 5.7 percent ahead of a year earlier. Department stores fared worse, with a 0.5 percent drop in September, to $17.62 billion, a 2 percent decline from a year earlier."I am very concerned about the outlook for retail sales for the rest of the year because of the higher gasoline prices," said New York-based retail consultant Walter Loeb. "There's still a chance for involuntary inventory accumulation, which could cause considerable markdowns."
Given the considerable lead times, there might be little opportunity left for retailers to adjust orders.
"Christmas more or less is bought because so much of it is today from foreign sources — China, Bangladesh, India," Loeb said.
Since the elimination of a broad system of quotas in January, more apparel production has shifted to those countries. Apparel and textile imports from China increased 47.3 percent in August to 1.7 billion square meter equivalents, according to the most recent governmental figures. Rounding out the top countries picking up importing steam in August were Pakistan, up 22 percent to 302.8 million SME; India, 18.5 percent to 209 million SME; Indonesia, 17.1 percent to 124.1 million SME, and Bangladesh, 24.3 percent to 123 million SME.
Increased imports, along with intense competition, industry consolidation and direct sourcing on the part of retailers, have helped keep apparel prices down for years. This trend continued with a 0.1 percent drop in seasonally adjusted apparel prices in September and a 0.6 percent drop in unadjusted prices from a year earlier.
Women's apparel showed mixed results, with a 0.4 percent upswing in prices for September, but a 0.9 percent reduction from a year ago. Price tags on suits and separates grew 0.9 percent for the month, but were off 1.9 percent from September 2004. Dresses managed a stronger 4.1 percent rise for the month and a 3.2 percent increase from a year earlier.
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