By  on November 17, 2006

WASHINGTON — Retail prices on women's apparel fell a seasonally adjusted 1.9 percent in October, though prices are still up 0.6 percent for the year so far, the Labor Department reported Thursday in the Consumer Price Index.

Price increases in women's apparel this year — there have been four months with at least a 1 percent uptick — indicate stores had pricing power they don't seem to have retained in October.

"It appears from our sample that items are being clearanced earlier than usual," said Malinda Harrell, an analyst at the Labor Department. "Normally, we show some increases, but we're decreasing this year and we have some big sales, which is kind of early for fall and winter."

Suits and separates, which make up about 53 percent of the women's index, led the decline for the month with a 3.5 percent drop, while dresses were down 1.1 percent and outerwear rallied with a 2.7 percent gain.

Comparing October with a year earlier, women's apparel prices advanced 1.2 percent as suits and separates posted a 2.3 percent increase, dresses were up 6.5 percent and outerwear fell 3.5 percent.

On the broader front, economists hoping for a sign that inflation had abated got what they were looking for in the October numbers.

Prices on all goods and services slid 0.5 percent and so-called "core" prices, which exclude food and energy, rose just 0.1 percent, the smallest increase since February.

"It's good news," said J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. economist James Glassman. "It means that these inflation pressures aren't really there and an awful lot of what you've been seeing is related to energy."

Headed by chairman Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Board keeps a close watch on inflation and will raise interest rates, slowing economic growth, if prices climb too swiftly.

"The fact that energy prices in particular are down and that we're not seeing increases in inflation elsewhere is definitely good news for holiday spending," said Scott Hoyt, director of consumer economics at Moody's "That said, we have major weights on consumers right now in the weakness in housing markets, slower job growth than we had six, 12 months ago, record-high financial obligations and debt burdens."Accordingly, Hoyt predicted consumer spending over the holidays would be good, but not quite as good as the last couple of years.

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