By  on December 11, 2009

WASHINGTON — Retail sales results released by the Commerce Department Friday were a reminder that the road to recovery for apparel retailers will be slow.

Department store sales increased 0.7 percent in November compared with October, but declined 4.7 percent compared with a year earlier to $15.75 billion.

Specialty store sales declined 0.7 percent month-to-month, but increased 0.9 percent compared with November 2008 to $17.48 billion, the Commerce Department said.

Given the tough economic times, with unemployment levels still high and the fallout from the financial crisis continuing, consumers are less likely to focus on the material aspects of the holiday season, like gifts, said Kevin Regan, senior managing director and retail industry expert with FTI Consulting.

“It’s a tough environment for anyone to look for a joyous holiday,” Regan said. Consumers did spend some in November, he said, but mostly on necessity items. It’s also worth noting that November 2008 was a dismal month for retailers, which puts year-over-year comparisons into context, he added.

Overall, November retail and food service sales beat expectations, rising 1.3 percent compared with the previous month. Sales rose 1.7 percent compared with a year earlier to $352.1 billion. The year-over-year increase was the first since August 2008, economists said.

While top-line results for November looked positive, the increase was driven primarily by higher gas prices, economists said. Excluding gas and car sales, retail sales increased a tamer 0.6 percent for the month.

On Wall Street, the S&P Retail Index rose for the second straight day, gaining 1.3 percent, or 5.25 points, to close at 412.52 Friday. The sector perked up 1.2 percent for the week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average increased 0.6 percent, or 65.67 points, to end at 10,471.50 for the day, an advance of 0.8 percent for the week.

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