WASHINGTON — Retail prices for women’s apparel fell a seasonally adjusted 0.8 percent in February against January, as retailers continued to feel the squeeze on prices, the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index revealed Wednesday.

Compared with February 2003, women’s apparel prices fell 2.2 percent, a continuation of the long-term deflationary price pressures to which retailers have become accustomed.

For all apparel, retail prices fell 0.1 percent for the month on a seasonally adjusted basis, following a 0.3 percent decline in January and a 0.4 percent decline in December. Compared with February 2003, consumer prices for all apparel fell 1.7 percent. Consumer prices for girls’ apparel showed the only sign of strength last month, with a strong 3 percent increase. Prices in that category also rose on a year-over-year basis by 0.2 percent.

“Today’s retail price data for February is further indication of the unique pricing pressures facing the textile and apparel industry, as a flood of very low-priced imports, particularly from China, continues to capture domestic and foreign market share,” said Charles McMillion, president of MBG Information Services.

The other part of the depressed pricing picture for apparel retailers is fierce competition from discounters, according to economists.

“Discounters are much more of a problem for retailers,” said Rajeev Dhawan, director of the economic forecasting center at Georgia State University. “Prices should have gone up, but they aren’t and that also shows you that foreign producers are eating up the cost.”

Overall, retail prices rose 0.3 percent in February, driven mainly by higher energy costs. Stripping out volatile food and energy prices, the CPI inched up 0.2 percent in what is known as its “core” rate.

“I would call this a healthy number in the sense that the core number is not as low as it was six months ago,” said Dhawan. “The issue is if the economy is not doing too well the core will keep dropping, so any uptick in the core is a healthy sign.”

In women’s apparel, retail prices for outerwear fell 0.5 percent last month and plunged 8.9 percent against February 2003, while prices for dresses declined 1.1 percent in February and sank 3.2 percent against a year ago.Consumer prices for suits and separates fell 1.2 percent last month against January and dropped 2.3 percent year over year, while retail prices for underwear, nightwear, sportswear and accessories decreased 0.6 percent in February and 0.5 percent against a year ago.

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