WASHINGTON — Sales at specialty and department stores bounced back a bit in February from the effects of a harsh winter, in line with an uptick in retail sales in the overall economy, the Commerce Department’s monthly sales report showed Thursday.
Apparel and accessories stores posted a seasonally adjusted 0.4 percent increase in sales to $20.9 billion compared with January, while department stores notched a 0.7 percent sales gain to $14.1 billion. General merchandise stores, a category that includes discounters and department stores, saw a 0.3 percent decline in sales to $54.4 billion last month.
“I think the suspicion is that there was partial payback for apparel and accessories stores and department stores, although we are definitely not clear of the weather effects yet,” said Scott Hoyt, director of consumer economics at Moody’s Analytics, referring to severe winter storms in January and February. “Apparel and accessories stores were up 0.4 percent in February, but that is coming off of a 1.8 percent decline and I think that is likely still a negative weather effect.”
Hoyt said department stores have been “trending very weakly year-over-year, with consistent declines.” General merchandise stores have been hit by weather and cuts in food stamps and unemployment insurance benefits, he said.
On a year-over-year basis, specialty stores sales were 2.6 percent higher, while sales at department stores were down 4.8 percent and sales at general merchandise stores declined 0.8 percent.
“Despite a long and cold winter, consumers continued to persevere and spend in February,” said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation. “This month’s retail sales data is encouraging and above expectations. However, neither the jobs nor retail data reflect the fundamental health of the economy.”
But Kleinhenz said he expects consumers to release pent-up demand this spring.
In the overall economy, retail sales rose 0.3 percent to $427.2 billion, slightly ahead of economists’ expectations.
“It is very clear that the unseasonably colder weather and snowstorms kept many shoppers away from the mall,” said Chris G. Christopher Jr., director of consumer economics at IHS Global Insight. “Most of the retail channels that took a hit in January were in positive territory in February,” noting areas such as clothing, furniture, sporting goods, department stores and restaurants.
Christopher said IHS expects retail sales to “gain further traction” in the coming months as the “job market improves and the weather warms up.”