By  on October 18, 2007

WASHINGTON — Retail prices on women's apparel grew a seasonally adjusted 0.5 percent in September, the first increase in seven months, though prices are still down 3.1 percent from a year ago.

September's rise in women's apparel prices outpaced inflation in the broader economy, which saw prices on all goods and services rise 0.3 percent, according to the Labor Department's Consumer Price Index released Wednesday. The so-called core prices, which exclude the food and energy sectors, rose 0.2 percent, the fourth such monthly increase in a row.

"Higher oil and food prices are simply not fueling broader inflation in the United States, as the subprime [mortgage] meltdown and pullback in housing prices are making consumers more cautious about how they spend their money," Peter Morici, professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, wrote in an analysis.

The Federal Reserve Board's Beige Book, which was also released Wednesday and offered an anecdotal reading of the economy in September and early October across the Fed's 12 districts, found overall economic activity expanded since August, though at a slower rate in the Cleveland, Dallas, Kansas City, Richmond, Va., and San Francisco regions.

"There appeared to be a high level of uncertainty about the outlook for retail sales and a few districts report that retailers have reduced inventories," said the report.

Even so, women's apparel prices rose broadly compared with August, after adjusting for seasonal variations.

Suit and separates prices inched up 0.1 percent for the month, but fell 5 percent from a year earlier, as outerwear prices jumped 3.4 percent in September and 1.1 percent for the year, and dress prices advanced 1.6 percent against both August and over the 12 months.

However, the overall trend in apparel is deflationary. Decreased regulation on apparel trade, the rise of China, technological advances and intense retail competition have all combined to push apparel prices down 10.1 percent over the last decade.

The mild price inflation seen across all goods and services was not enough to ruffle any economic feathers. The Fed, which spent much of the year watching inflation and holding interest rates steady, acknowledged the housing and credit problems last month by lowering the benchmark federal funds interest rate by 50 basis points to 4.75 percent."What's happening here is the Fed is paying attention to the housing market because they don't want to let the housing market implode for fear that the consumer completely pulls back," said Paul Nolte, director of investments at Hinsdale Assoc.

The fallout in the real estate market continued last month when, according to a separate Commerce Department report Wednesday, construction of new homes fell 10.2 percent.

The Fed will draw on information from the Beige Book and other sources when it meets to set interest rate policies on Oct. 30 and 31. From the Beige Book, the Fed will see a mixed picture.

In the Boston area, "Several retailers anticipate no improvement for another one to two years," said the report. "However, others remain optimistic in their outlook. As one noted, 'For the right deal, people are still buying.'"

In Philadelphia, a luxe retailer said fashion items were "well up from last year." Similarly, luxury goods outperformed lower-priced items in San Francisco-area department stores, though slower sales did cause inventories to rise.

"The general manager of a department store in the Washington area reported that stronger apparel sales had been overshadowed by a further pullback in furniture sales," said the report.

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