WASHINGTON — Sales at apparel and accessories stores increased a seasonally adjusted 0.3 percent in April, to $17.5 billion, but department stores registered a 0.1 percent decline, to $17.8 billion, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

Compared with a year earlier, sales at apparel and accessories stores were up 4.5 percent for the month and turnover at department stores slid 1.4 percent.

Across the economy, retail and food service stores posted a 0.5 percent rise in sales, below the 0.8 percent bump expected by economists.

“Overall, the sales were not terrific,” said Brian Bethune, U.S. economist at Global Insight.

However, he didn’t consider the report an ominous sign. “We’re still of the mind that the fundamentals in terms of employment and income are still good.”

Higher fuel prices remain a concern, but represent a small amount of overall household spending and aren’t expected to severely bite into the apparel purchases of most consumers, experts said.

A gallon of regular gasoline sold for an average of $2.89 Thursday, up from $2.69 a month ago and $2.18 a year ago, according to the American Automobile Association

“For some consumers, they are making fewer trips to the store. However, in terms of consumer habits, most of us have habits that are pretty well ingrained,” said Cynthia Jasper, professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She said higher gas prices won’t have a big impact on apparel customers who want to buy the latest fashions.

Retailers better keep an eye on price, though.

Jasper said the American consumer in general is more concerned with fashion and price and less so with quality or brands.

“We have a disposal society, to a certain extent, in terms of our consumer products, even cars,” she said. “That’s running through our consumer mind at this point, and fashion is considered to be disposable; in fact, it’s part of the definition of fashion that it’s constantly changing.”

This story first appeared in the May 12, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.