WASHINGTON — Retail prices for women’s apparel in August dipped a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent against July, marking the first, although slight, erosion in prices in three months, the Labor Department reported Tuesday.

However, discounting of summer merchandise in August was offset by fall merchandise “coming in with higher or regular prices,” a Labor apparel analyst pointed out.

Compared with August 2002, women’s apparel prices last month were still beset by deflation, declining 3.6 percent over the 12 months, according to the Labor’s monthly Consumer Price Index, a key measure of inflation. In July, women’s apparel prices for the month were unchanged, following a 0.7 percent increase in June and reflecting a long-term, up-and-down price pattern in the problematic economy.

For all apparel, retail prices in August edged up 0.1 percent against July and were off 2.7 percent from the year before. Girls’ apparel prices increased 0.8 percent for the month, but were off 1.4 percent from August 2002. Men’s apparel prices declined 0.6 percent in August against July and plunged 4.3 percent over the 12 months.

In the overall economy, prices for all retail goods last month increased 0.3 percent against July. However, when volatile energy and food prices are removed from the index, consumer prices increased a more moderate 0.1 percent.

John Mothersole, a senior economist with WEFA/Global Insights Inc., said pricing power in the overall economy is slowly strengthening and deflation concerns seem to be waning. Earlier this year, government officials including Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, had said they were on the lookout for deflation taking hold and further dragging down the economy.

Citing a still rocky, but strengthening economy, as well as a slight concern about deflation, the Federal Reserve on Tuesday decided to leave interest rates alone. The federal funds rate of 1 percent is already at a 45-year low.

The Fed noted that the “upside and downside risks” of sustained economic growth are “roughly equal.” But increased productivity and increased consumer spending are pointing the way to a recovery, the Fed said.

In the apparel arena, Retail Forward Inc. economist Steve Spiwak said retailer discounting is helping to fuel sales, while paring down inventories that had built up earlier in the year when demand was down.“What we’re seeing now is the first time in about a year in the apparel area where sales are outpacing inventory, which is a good sign going into the Christmas selling season,” Spiwak said.

Meanwhile, the women’s apparel categories tracked by the federal government and their August price changes for the month and over the year were: outerwear, down 0.5 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively; dresses, up 7.6 percent and down 2 percent; suits and separates, down 1.6 percent and 4.7 percent, and underwear, nightwear, sportswear and accessories, down 2.1 percent and 0.1 percent.

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