By  on August 14, 2007

WASHINGTON — July sales at apparel and accessories stores rose a seasonally adjusted 1.3 percent versus June as department stores posted a 1.6 percent increase.

Against a year earlier, sales at apparel and accessories stores advanced 5.8 percent last month to $19.1 billion, as department stores tallied growth of 1.2 percent to $17.7 billion, according to the Commerce Department's monthly report on sales released Monday.

On the broader front, July sales at all retail and food service establishments expanded by a seasonally adjusted 0.3 percent, compared with the preceding month. Overall sales fell a seasonally adjusted 0.7 percent during June, but were up 1.3 percent for the three months ended July 31.

"We're off to a slow start, but a positive one nevertheless," said Richard Yamarone, chief economist at Argus Research Corp., who described July as a "quirky month" since some stores have started back-to-school sales while others wait until August.

"We're really going to have to wait another month until we see the consumer really come out," said Yamarone, noting gasoline prices have been inching down and that employment is strong.

It is unclear whether the stock market's recent yo-yoing will cause consumers, who have been propping up the economy, to change their spending habits. Yamarone argued employment is far more important to consumer spending than fluctuations in the financial markets.

"Consumers rarely care about what's going on in the stock market," said Yamarone.

The U.S. economy added a less-than-anticipated 92,000 jobs in July, though wages for the month were 3.9 percent higher than a year earlier, helping to support spending.

Still, the movement in the market has been dramatic and if investors lost their appetite for companies that extend loans to consumers, shoppers who depend on credit to spend could be restrained.

"At this point, it is too early to assess the impact of recent market volatility and tighter credit conditions generally on consumer spending momentum," said Brian Bethune, U.S. economist with Global Insight. "But we will have to wait until the end of this month to get an idea as to whether tighter credit conditions are starting to have any material impact on spending. For now, the fundamentals supporting consumer spending still look fairly solid."

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