WASHINGTON — Retail prices for women’s apparel fell in March for the first time in that month since 1997, despite the traditional boost from spring and summer introductions, according to the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index, released Wednesday.

Women’s apparel retail prices fell 0.6 percent in March against February on a seasonally adjusted basis and plunged 3.4 percent over the last 12 months. The 12-month decline marks 23 months of year-over-year declines in women’s retail apparel prices, according to a Labor analyst.

Retail prices for all apparel fell 0.4 percent last month against February and declined 3.6 percent year-over-year. The overall apparel index includes footwear prices, which fell sharply in March by 2.4 percent and dragged the rest of the index down, according to the analyst with the Labor Department.

Apparel retail prices have been falling year-over-year since November 1998, she said.

"We’ve had entrenched deflation in apparel, which is one of the most globally traded products there is," said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research. "There has been a freeing up of trade in apparel and textile products over the last decade, and there are a lot more places you can source it from and at a lot lower cost, which puts a downward pressure on retail prices."

Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University, attributed the weakness in apparel prices to heavy discounting and the move away from conventional department stores to discounters.

"Apparel is plainly hurting," Dhawan said. "Retailers are trying to move merchandise and they are giving massive discounts, and that is the cause of the problem."

In the overall economy, consumer prices rose 0.3 percent in March, still reflecting higher energy costs, which have since begun to fall. The core CPI, excluding food and energy prices, was flat in March, showing that other prices are under control.

"Inflation is hard to find," Steidtmann said. "We are seeing more signs of it at the producer price level than at retail."

Dhawan said weak pricing power at retail is good news for consumers, but warned it is not "healthy to have inflation go toward zero.""That could stoke deflation fears in core prices," he said.

In the individual categories tracked by Labor, retail prices for dresses fell sharply by 2.6 percent in March on a seasonally adjusted basis and plunged 3 percent year-over-year, while prices for suits and separates fell 1 percent last month and fell sharply by 3.6 percent over the last 12 months.

Prices for outerwear fell 0.7 percent in March against February and declined 0.5 percent over the last 12 months, while prices for underwear, nightwear, sportswear and accessories inched up 0.1 percent in March, but fell sharply by 3.8 percent over the last 12 months.

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