By  on November 15, 2006

WASHINGTON — Sales at apparel and accessories stores moderated last month, inching up a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent after a 2.9 percent jump in September, according to the Commerce Department.

Sales at the stores advanced 7.6 percent, to $18.5 billion, compared with a year ago.

Department stores did not fare as well, however, with sales of $17.6 billion, marking a 0.7 percent drop from the preceding month and a 2 percent decline from a year earlier.

The National Retail Federation described apparel and accessories stores as one of the "bright spots in retail sales that bode well for the upcoming holiday season."

Propelled by falling gasoline prices, total retail and food service sales slid 0.2 percent for the month after a 0.8 percent retreat in September. Sales at gasoline stations dropped 6 percent in October and 11.1 percent during the preceding month.

"Although gas prices have declined, the slow housing market appears to be hurting consumer spending power as home improvement and home furnishing categories begin to struggle," NRF chief economist Rosalind Wells said in a statement.

A gallon of regular gas averaged $2.23 on Tuesday, down from more than $3 over the summer, the American Automobile Association said.

"Clearly, people are pulling away from the gas pump with a little more money than was the case three or four months ago, but the amount of money that we're talking about is the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes," said Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board.

The relative strength at apparel and accessories stores might be a sign of some pricing power, a rarity as of late in the competitive retail sector.

Department stores, the focus of dramatic consolidation in recent years, have not had as much luck on the sales front. Goldstein said the difference might come down to store merchandising.

Looking to the holiday season, Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, said consumer spending has been fairly constant, with the exceptions of motor vehicle sales and gasoline, and should remain so for a bit.

"The stability, overall, is probably a story that lingers at least for the very near term," Niemira said. "What happens to '07 may be a different story."

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