WASHINGTON — Apparel sales fell slightly in April compared with surprisingly robust growth in March, but receipts continued to show signs of improvement compared with last year.


Clothing and accessories store sales declined 1 percent in April compared with March, while department store receipts fell 1.5 percent, the Commerce Department reported Friday.
In yearly comparisons, specialty store sales advanced 5.7 percent to $18.3 billion and department stores rose 0.9 percent to $15.9 billion.


Retail sales figures for clothing stores in March advanced even more than initially reported, the Commerce Department said. Specialty store sales rose 2.6 percent in March compared with February and increased 8.4 percent compared with March 2009. Sales at department stores rose 1.3 percent in March compared with a month earlier and increased 2.7 percent in 12-month comparisons.


“When you look at the spring selling season, it was good — it had to be a feel-good season for most retailers. But the question remains how sustainable it is. My feeling is you don’t pop the corks yet,” said Kevin Regan, senior managing director and retail industry expert with FTI Consulting.


Sales at general merchandise stores, which include department store figures, fell 0.4 percent in April compared with March. In 12-month comparisons, sales rose 3.9 percent to $51.1 billion.


“Consumers are cautiously opening their wallets and making purchases that they deferred or avoided during the worst of the recession,” said Sandy Kennedy, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “Retailers have reacted to measured sales growth by diligently controlling inventory levels and offering product assortments at prices reflective of what consumers are seeking. These measures have allowed retailers to succeed through the recession, and as the market improves, these measures will be the cornerstone for growth and increased profitability.”


The overall gain in sales of all goods and services was 0.4 percent in April compared with a month earlier. In yearly comparisons, sales rose 8.8 percent over the prior year to $366.4 billion.


“The slow road to recovery is turning into a sprint as retailers experienced a nice bounce in April,” said Matt Shay, president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation. “But maintaining this sales momentum will be challenging. Until our economy begins to create jobs and reduce unemployment, the breadth and sustainability of this recovery remains uncertain.”


Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said that, as consumer spending increases, the outlook is brighter for sustained economic growth.


“The rising trend in retail sales indicates that consumer spending continues to grow, underlining increasing confidence in the recovery,” Locke said


However, observers said, consumers still face challenges, including continued credit issues and high unemployment.


“Consumers are going to continue to be a key driver to our long-term growth, but they’re not going to be able to sustain this level of purchasing that we’ve been seeing in the last couple months,” Regan said.

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