WASHINGTON — Department stores and discounters showed modest signs of sales growth in January, while sales at apparel and accessories stores remained flat, a U.S. Commerce Department report showed Tuesday.

General merchandise stores, a category that includes department stores and discounters, posted a seasonally adjusted 2 percent increase in sales to $54 billion in January compared with December, while sales at department stores increased 1 percent to $15.4 billion. Sales at specialty stores were unchanged in January at $19.2 billion.

On a year-over-year basis, sales at apparel and accessories stores were up 5.3 percent compared with January 2011, while sales at department stores were 1.5 percent higher. General merchandise sales were 5.8 percent above a year earlier.

In the overall economy, retail sales increased 0.4 percent to $404.4 billion in the month, above the pace of the revised flat sales total in December, but below some economists’ expectations.

 

“This is decent sales growth, but it does not reflect the discounting from a number of these stressed retailers, particularly in the youth sector,” said Craig Johnson, president at Customer Growth Partners. “Companies like Aéropostale, Abercrombie & Fitch, J.C. Penney and Sears have all had significant margin erosion due to poor sales resulting in the need to mark down goods to clear them out in January.”

Johnson said stronger retailers such as Macy’s and Nordstrom still had a “decent” January, although it would have been better without the “rampant” clearance in the month.

Chris G. Christopher Jr., senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight, said retail sales overall grew at a stronger pace since October and “posted substantial gains over a flat December.”

“General merchandise, department and sporting good stores reversed themselves well into the black after a red December,” Christopher said. “Clothing was flat, after two consecutive months of positive gains.”

Christopher said there has been relatively good news on the consumer front, including a falling unemployment rate, which stands at 8.3 percent, an increase in household income and an improved consumer mood since early fall. But there are also “big negatives,” such as high debt burdens, falling home prices and rising gasoline prices.

“It is apparent that despite a rise in gasoline prices, Americans caught up on some shopping,” he added.

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