By  on May 13, 2014

WASHINGTON — Apparel and accessories stores, discounters and department stores all posted modest gains in April, as sales in the overall economy rose slightly but were below expectations, the Commerce Department’s monthly retail sales report showed Tuesday.

Specialty stores posted a seasonally adjusted 1.2 percent increase in sales to $21 billion last month, while department store sales were up 1.8 percent to $14.2 billion. General merchandise stores, a category that includes department stores, edged up 0.2 percent to $55.4 billion in April.

“Those numbers would all be what I would call in line with expectations in the sense that February and March were very challenged months for the combined reasons of weather, the late Easter and the fact that people got crushed with home-heating bills [this past winter],” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. “With the weather bounce back and a late Easter in April, some sequential improvement [was expected].”

However, Johnson said retail in general has been anemic and has had a “subpar” season, with the single biggest driver being disposable income growth.

“Only 48 percent of working-age adults have full-time jobs,” he said. “When you have numbers like that, you never have strong income growth.”

Johnson said, “Apparel has been sluggish for some time. It is exceedingly price competitive,” adding that warmer weather in April did not give retailers enough time to “make up for all of the lost ground in apparel sales” in the first quarter.

Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation, said: “Even though retail sales were weaker than anticipated, the fundamentals of the economy, including improving job growth and income gains, remain positive. While the shift in Easter played into the seasonal figures, NRF remains optimistic that retail sales will keep their positive trajectory, albeit in fits and starts, in the second quarter.”

In the overall economy, retail sales rose 0.1 percent to $434.6 billion in April, signaling a disappointing start to the second quarter, although economists for the most part maintained a positive outlook for the quarter.

“This is a relatively good report showing that consumers were quick to make up for the shopping they didn’t do in January,” said Kristin Reynolds, U.S. economist at IHS. “Looking ahead, we expect that the improving employment picture and consumer mood at elevated levels will lead to a solid second quarter for retail sales.”

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