By  on July 16, 2007

WASHINGTON — Retailers are looking for the back-to-school season to energize shoppers after sales at apparel and accessories stores fell a seasonally adjusted 1.4 percent in June compared with the previous month. Department stores saw a 1 percent drop.

The results followed a better May, when sales rose 2.5 percent at apparel and accessories stores and 1.3 percent at department stores.

In June, total retail and food service sales slid 0.9 percent, the worst showing since August 2005 and well below May's 1.5 percent increase, according to a U.S. Commerce Department report released Friday.

"Consumers scaled down their shopping last month to buy necessities, which negatively affected department and specialty stores," Rosalind Wells, the National Retail Federation's chief economist, said in a statement. "Retailers are now shifting their focus toward back-to-school, which should provide a nice sales boost in July and August."

Looking at June tallies compared with a year earlier, sales at apparel and accessories stores advanced 4.8 percent to $18.7 billion, and department stores registered a 2.1 percent decline to $17.4 billion.

Last week, Wal-Mart Stores posted a better-than-expected 1.6 percent same-store sales increase, helping to spark a rally on Wall Street that drove the Dow Jones Industrial Average up more than 283 points.

The government's aggregate figure looked gloomy in comparison, but prompted a mixed reaction from economists.

"The weakness we saw in retail was pretty general, this wasn't just a category or two," said David Wyss, Standard & Poor's chief economist. "At the same time, it's coming off of a very strong May, so you have to take the two together."

Still, Wyss said the weakness in consumer spending, paired with the already troubled housing market, was a concern.

"I'm a little more worried about the third quarter than I was before this came out," he said.

Total sales for the three months ended June 30 were up 1.2 percent from the preceding three-month period.

Some easing in gasoline prices will help low-end shoppers, as the strong stock market will entice the well-heeled to spend more, said Peter Morici, professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business."Those people that sell on price and those people that sell on luxury are going to be good," Morici said. "The people in the middle are going to continue to face a very tough environment. The middle is under pressure from slowing economic growth and globalization."

Macy's Inc., still struggling to digest its acquisition of May Department Stores, but focused squarely on the middle-income shopper, posted a same-store sales drop of 2.7 percent for June and is looking for July comps to be flat to down 3 percent.

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