By  on August 6, 2007

WASHINGTON — U.S. fashion retailers turned in mixed results for July when it came to staffing their stores, with department stores shedding a seasonally adjusted 2,600 jobs compared with June, and apparel and accessories specialty stores adding 900 positions.

On the wholesale side, domestic apparel and textile manufacturers cut 5,100 jobs from the payroll last month, according to the Labor Department's monthly report on employment released Friday.

The overall economy added a less-than-expected 92,000 jobs in July versus the preceding month, the worst showing since February, as the unemployment rate ticked up to 4.6 percent from 4.5 percent.

"It's probably the best we could hope for given all the headwinds," said James F. Smith, director of the Center for Business Forecasting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Accounting for two-thirds of economic growth, consumer spending has been holding up in spite of high gasoline prices and a plethora of problems in the housing sector.

"She's out there doing her thing," said Smith of the female consumer. "It's probably lower apparel prices [and] nice fashionable items getting people out to shop."

The contrast between July's payroll drop at department stores and the increasing staff at specialty stores could be tied to sales in the two sectors.

"You get too many people in there, you need help, particularly at one of the little trendy places that only had one salesperson," said Smith.

Most leading retailers will report same-store sales for July on Thursday. The Commerce Department will release retail sales figures for July on Aug. 13.

Ken Goldstein, an economist at The Conference Board, described the economy and the labor market as "slow, but not slowing."

"The good news for the consumer is that wages in July were 3.9 percent higher than last July," Goldstein said. "That's probably the number-one thing, more than confidence, more than spending, more than jobs."

Average hourly earnings weighed in at a seasonally adjusted $17.45 last month, up from $16.79 a year ago. Over the past year, however, fashion retailers have been bulking up their staffs. Department stores added 12,200 jobs over the past 12 months for a total of 1.6 million, as apparel and accessories stores added 11,200 positions for 1.4 million overall.Continuing to struggle against a rising tide of imports, as well as technology driven restructuring, domestic apparel and textile firms reduced payrolls.

Employment at textile mills fell by 2,700 positions to 169,800, as textile product firms cut payrolls by 1,100 to 153,600 and apparel factories eliminated 1,300 jobs for a total of 216,800. Together, employment in the three categories fell by 56,300 over the past 12 months.

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