WASHINGTON — The up-and-down economy was handed another negative Tuesday as the Commerce Department reported that retail sales at clothing and accessories stores in August fell a seasonally adjusted 1.4 percent against July, contributing to the overall uneven retail picture.

The drop in clothing and accessories store sales and a 2 percent decline in auto sales can be largely blamed for dragging down retail sales as a whole, which fell 0.3 percent for the month. In July, all retail sales increased 0.8 percent, following June’s dip of 0.5 percent.

Department stores, which have been in a prolonged slump, also lost ground in August, falling 0.8 percent month-on-month after two consecutive monthly gains. Compared with August 2003, department store sales last month were off 3.3 percent.

“August represented another notch in a schizophrenic summer for retail sales,” Rosalind Wells, the National Retail Federation’s chief economist, said in a statement, blaming last month’s sales declines on wet weather, a late Labor Day and the absence of $300 child tax credits, which helped fuel retail coffers a year ago.

Compared with August 2003, all retail sales last month were up 4.9 percent, with clothing and accessories store sales posting a 2.4 percent gain for the period.

The government also has revised upward its tally of July clothing and accessories store sales. Instead of a 0.1 percent drop, Commerce said they increased 0.2 percent.

Sales at department and general merchandise stores are also seeing a seesaw pattern. General merchandise stores, including discounters, saw sales dip 0.4 percent in August against July, but compared with August 2003, they rose 3.8 percent. Commerce also has revised its July general merchandise sales figure to a gain of 0.8, instead of a 1 percent rise.

Ken Goldstein, chief economist with the Conference Board, said consumers may just be searching for deep bargains, despite apparel prices in July falling 0.8 percent after four months of gains. If sales continue to slide into September and October, “then it’s a problem and would certainly spell disaster come holiday time, but I don’t see that being the case,” Goldstein said, his economic optimism buoyed by 144,000 new jobs added to the economy in August and gradual gains in the Labor Department index measuring hourly earnings.

This story first appeared in the September 15, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University, said, “High energy costs clearly are one thing that hits the pocketbook for clothing and shoe expenditures.”

Not all retail sectors were in an August sales slump. For example, sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores saw sales gain 1.4 percent for the month and 3.7 percent for the year. Health and personal care store sales increased 1 percent in August against July and were up 5.3 percent from August 2003, and grocery sales grew 0.8 percent for the month and were up 3.3 percent over the 12 months.

The economy has been a central presidential campaign issue and rivals terrorism among voters’ top concerns in opinion polls. President Bush’s campaign on Tuesday reacted to the weak retail sales report by highlighting recent gains in service-sector revenues, increased temporary employment hiring and large gains in machine tool orders.

First Lady Laura Bush, campaigning Tuesday in Wisconsin, cited the low national unemployment rate of 5.4 percent and of 4.7 percent in Wisconsin as a measure of economic health. “And today, more families than ever before, especially minority families, own their own homes,” she said in the town of Middleton.