WASHINGTON — Sales at apparel and accessories stores increased to $16.7 billion in April, a 2.8 percent rise from March propelled by improved employment and consumer resilience.

Sales advanced 7.9 percent compared with a year ago and fit into a positive economic trend, as sales outstripped expectations just a week after the nation’;s jobs picture brightened.

Overall retail sales rose 1.4 percent during the month to $344.9 billion, the biggest gain since September, according to a Commerce Department report Thursday, which factors out seasonal differences. The result marks an 8.6 percent improvement over a year ago and follows a March increase of 0.4 percent.

“More jobs imply more income, which implies more consumer spending,” said John Lonski, senior economist at Moody’;s Investors Service, who had projected an 0.4 percent increase in overall retail sales.

The U.S. added 274,000 jobs in April, while unemployment held steady at 5.2 percent, the Labor Department reported last week. As the employment picture brightens, so does the need for interview-ready suits, which boosts store sales, Lonski said.

Soaring gasoline prices are not having as much of an effect on consumer spending as some had expected, Lonski said. A gallon of regular gasoline costs an average of $2.18, a 12.7 percent rise over a year ago, the Automobile Association of America said.

Taking April and March together, “Consumer spending has moderated some, but it’;s not nearly as bad as it looked when we saw March figures,” said James Glassman, an economist at J.P. Morgan Chase. “The truth is probably somewhere in between March and April.”

Sales at general merchandise stores last month rose 1.5 percent to $44.1 billion from March and 7.4 percent from a year earlier. Within that category, department store sales pushed up 1.3 percent to $18.1 billion during the month and 1.6 percent against a year ago.

This story first appeared in the May 13, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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