Marred by a reversal of the advantages that propelled them forward in March, retail apparel sales retreated in April, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s monthly report released Tuesday.

Retailers benefited from the early timing of Easter and the early arrival of spring weather in March, but suffered through a more seasonal April despite the beginning of a relaxation in what had been a steady increase in fuel costs.

Apparel and accessories stores bore the brunt of the decline, with seasonally adjusted sales falling 0.7 percent to $19.74 billion from a revised $19.88 billion in March.  Estimated sales at general merchandise stores, which includes department stores, fell 0.1 percent to $53.7 billion from the updated March level of $53.77 billion.

Department stores, excluding leased departments, were off a more dramatic 1.4 percent to $15.28 billion in April from $15.49 billion in the prior month.


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The government’s preliminary estimate for retail sales last month was $408.04 billion, up 0.1 percent from the March level of $407.45 billion. That was just below the consensus estimate for an increase of 0.2 percent.

The specialty store backtrack was the second largest among the retail categories covered, topped only by the 1.8 percent decline in building material and garden equipment and supply dealers, which were off 1.8 percent. Most retail categories finished within a range of down 1 percent to up 1 percent, with only nonstore retailers, including those of the online variety, gaining more than 1 percent with a 1.1 percent pickup.

Leslie Levesque, U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, commented, “Retailers saw little gains in April as weather turned more seasonable after record warmth in the month prior. Building materials and clothing stores took the brunt of it as payback for earlier strength was ultimately realized in April.”

IHS expects consumer spending adjusted for inflation to grow at a 2.5 percent clip during the second quarter, below the 2.9 percent pace registered in the first three months of the year “but still a decent stride,” Levesque said.

Combining sales for the months of March and April, as some retailers have done in their comments on same-store sales, apparel and accessories specialty stores generated $39.62 billion in seasonally adjusted sales, 6.2 percent above the year-ago level. General merchandise stores improved 3.1 percent to $107.46 billion, while department stores had a decrease of 1.1 percent to $30.77 billion.

Andrew Tananbaum, executive chairman of Capital Business Credit, called the numbers “moderately disappointing” but unlikely to have an effect on the generally bullish attitude about business found in a survey released in March, when 40 percent of his wholesaler clients reported stronger orders for spring and 37 percent for summer than in the prior year.

“April is a soft month between seasons, but it reflects concerns about Europe, the strength of the recovery and job creation slowing down,” he said. “It’s doesn’t bode particularly well for the consumer.”

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