WASHINGTON — Retail sales were lackluster across the board last month, although sales showed some strength on a year-over-year basis, according to the Commerce Department’s report released Friday.

Retail sales at clothing and accessories stores fell 0.9 percent to $14.34 billion in September against August on a seasonally adjusted basis, but sales were up 7.3 percent when compared to September 2001. At general merchandise stores, sales last month dipped 0.1 percent to $38.31 billion for the month and gained 5.5 percent from year-ago reports.

Sales at department stores, excluding leased departments, fell 0.6 percent to $18.73 billion last month and dropped 1.9 percent from a year ago.

"The month-to-month numbers don’t look good, but the year-over-year numbers look OK," said Ira Kalish, chief economist at Retail Forward. "The surprise to me is the strength in clothing store sales year over year."

Kalish attributed the annual gains in sales to promotional activity and non-mall locations.

"Department store sales are still weak," he said. "That says to me people are still avoiding malls."

All retail sales fell 1.2 percent last month, but were up 5.8 percent against September 2001. Declining auto sales contributed to the overall monthly retail sales decrease.

"Unseasonable weather, a weakened economy and fear of war [with Iraq] have all had their fair share of negative impact on September retail sales," said Rosalind Wells, chief economist at the National Retail Federation.

However, she said the pent-up demand for apparel should boost retail sales in the fourth quarter and predicted a 4 percent growth in holiday sales.

Kalish wasn’t as bullish.

"Today, a much larger share of the population has a direct stake in the equity market than was the case in the recent past," Kalish said. "The dramatic decline in equity prices is making consumers feel less wealthy and you are going to see a lesser willingness to engage in discretionary spending."

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