WASHINGTON — Clothing and accessories stores kicked off the holidays in November with a big increase in sales, but traditional department stores didn’t have a lot to be merry about, according to the Commerce Department’s report released on Thursday.

Apparel and accessories store sales rose a seasonally adjusted 1.1 percent in November to $15.2 billion, while sales jumped 5.7 percent on a year-over-year basis.

“The numbers suggest consumers are in a much better holiday spirit than they were last year,” said Steve Spiwak, an economist with Retail Forward. “Growth was broad based — apparel and home goods retailers did as well as restaurants and bars. All of this points to a solid start to the holiday season.”

Sales at general merchandise stores posted a healthy gain of 0.1 percent to $40.3 billion in November, and gained 4.9 percent against a year ago.

Despite many signs of strength in the retail sector, department store sales remained weak, as they continued losing market share to big-box retailers and discounters. Sales at department stores fell a seasonally adjusted 1.1 percent last month to $17.8 billion. Compared with November 2002, sales at department stores fell by 3 percent.

“The weakness in traditional department stores such as Sears and J.C. Penney is offsetting stronger performances by more upscale department stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom,” Spiwak said.

In the overall economy, retail sales rose 0.9 percent in November, boosted by increases in electronics and auto sales.

“It comes down to consumer confidence,” said John Mothersole, an economist with Global Insight. “People are getting used to a level of news about Iraq and the employment situation is looking better.”

Spiwak attributed the stronger sales gains to “higher incomes than last year and lower house payments through refinancing, despite a modest improvement in the job market.”

“The stock market remains buoyant, which is also propping up higher-end retailers,” he added.

The National Retail Federation said holiday sales are tracking much stronger than last year. The NRF said the GAFS category, which tracks general merchandise stores; clothing and accessories stores; furniture and home furnishings stores; electronics and appliance stores, and sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores, increased 0.6 percent in November against October and gained 4.8 percent against a year ago.“November’s sales illustrate an improving economy and increasing consumer optimism,” said Rosalind Wells, chief economist with the NRF. “Though last month’s sales were solid, we expect an even better pace in December, as consumers have yet to complete the bulk of their shopping.”

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