By  on April 14, 2006

WASHINGTON — Consumers spent fairly freely last month — just not on fashion.

Sales at all retailers and food service providers posted a seasonally adjusted 0.6 percent gain at the cash register in March compared with February. But sales at apparel and accessories stores were flat for the month, while department stores registered a 0.1 percent decline, according to a monthly Commerce Department report.

Sales in March were stronger when compared with a year earlier, with apparel and accessories shops rising 6.6 percent to $17.4 billion and department stores increasing 0.4 percent to $17.9 billion. But sales at all stores and food service providers were even better, advancing 7.9 percent to $361 billion from a year ago.

Statistics last week showed that March same-store sales rose at the softest rate since November 2004 for a weaker-than-expected 1.9 percent gain, the International Council of Shopping Centers said. Michael Niemira, chief economist at ICSC, described March results as "calendar-depressed" because Easter is three weeks later than last year.

Brian Bethune, U.S. economist at Global Insight, said some of the sluggishness the last two months in apparel stems from a lack of demand after strong sales in January, and cool weather across much of the country that didn't inspire spring purchases.

"Consumers are probably going to spend more in the month of April than they did in the month of March," he said. "We're seeing strong employment gains, we're seeing reasonable wage growth, so the consumer is in pretty good shape overall. There are, of course, the headwinds from higher energy and gasoline prices, and there's been quite a bit of grumbling about that."

A gallon of regular gasoline sold for an average of $2.72 Thursday, up 20 percent from a year ago, according to the American Automobile Association.

Richard Yamarone, chief economist for Argus Research Corp., said clearance sales to move winter merchandise, such as boots, might have also contributed to the tepid performance in the fashion arena.

"But one thing that may have done this, and has really been the overriding factor, were the clearance sales at Federated with the closure of several May stores," said Yamarone.Federated Department Stores, which in August acquired its chief rival, May Department Stores, has been winding down operations in more than 75 stores where the merger created an overlap.

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