By  on December 12, 2008

WASHINGTON — Black Friday promotions helped eke out small increases for retailers in November, but sales weren’t strong enough to boost results compared with a year earlier.

Sales at specialty apparel retailers rose 0.8 percent in November compared with October, while department stores increased sales 2.1 percent, the Commerce Department reported Friday.

Compared with November 2007, apparel and accessories store sales fell 5.8 percent to $18.02 billion and department stores declined 4.6 percent to $16.57 billion. Overall retail and food service providers reported a seasonally adjusted decrease of 1.8 percent from October to $355.7 billion. Sales tumbled 7.4 percent from a year earlier.

Charles McMillion, president and chief economist at MBG Information Services, said the “retail sales report shows that the slump is severe and worsening, but…the pace of that worsening does not appear to have quickened noticeably in retail sales during November.”

“Thanksgiving came too late in the month for retailers to see strong November sales,” said Rosalind Wells, chief economist for the National Retail Federation. “With five fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, the holiday season will come down to December’s performance.”

Despite shopping activity generated by Black Friday, consumers were reluctant to spend during the rest of the month, the NRF said. That means the bulk of holiday sales must now come this month. The NRF predicts meager holiday sales growth of 2.2 percent for the combined November-December time period.

“Retail is holding up well,” said Richard Yamarone, chief economist at Argus Research Corp. “It’s not going to be a banner year, and it’s not going to be one we will want to remember, but things are not as dire as we expected just a few weeks ago. However, individual retailers will suffer. We are seeing plenty of signs of that.”

Yamarone said despite some optimism following November sales results, driven largely by promotional activity, some retailers may not be around at the end of January. With rampant joblessness, falling prices and a consumer pullback, it would be naïve not to expect more retail failures, he added.

“The November report on retail sales suggests that while consumer spending is indeed weak, aggressive discounting seems to be working in terms of keeping consumers engaged during the peak retail season,” said Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist at IHS Global Insight.

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