WASHINGTON — Retail sales last month showed little strength, with department stores particularly weak and apparel softer than the overall picture, the Commerce Department reported Friday.

Retail sales at clothing and accessory stores in August declined 0.3 percent against July on a seasonally adjusted basis, but sales were up 2 percent when compared to August 2001.

At general merchandise stores, sales last month edged up 0.6 percent for the month and posted a 5.9 percent gain from year-ago receipts.

However, department store sales, excluding leased departments, were lackluster in August against July, declining 0.1 percent for the month and falling 2.3 percent from a year ago.

All retail sales increased 0.8 percent in August against July and were up 5.2 percent over the 12 months. The monthly sales increase was largely tied to increases at auto dealerships, home furnishings stores and at sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores.

Rosalind Wells, chief economist with the National Retail Federation, said the government’s retail sales report was "better than expected."

"While consumers postponed some purchases of fall clothing while waiting for cooler weather, they spent freely on other merchandise, like for the home and recreational products," Wells said. "We expect consumers to continue to bolster economic activity through solid increases in spending as we approach the holiday season and the all-important fourth quarter."

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