WASHINGTON — Women’s retail apparel prices fell in February for the first time in three months, as merchants rushed to put early spring merchandise on sale and cleared out fall and winter apparel on deep discounts.

Retail prices for women’s apparel declined a seasonally adjusted 1.8 percent, after an 0.6 percent increase in January, a 0.5 percent rise in December and a 0.6 percent increase in November, the U.S. Labor Department said Friday in its Consumer Price Index.

Compared with a year ago, women’s apparel prices were down 3.8 percent, consistent with a long-term deflationary cycle for the sector.

Within the women’s category, outerwear fell 1 percent last month, but rose 4.1 percent from a year ago. Dresses dropped 0.6 percent and slipped 1.2 percent against a year ago. Suits and separates slid 2.8 percent and were down 5.6 percent compared with a year earlier. Prices for the combined category of underwear, nightwear, sportswear and accessories declined 1 percent and dropped 3.4 percent against last year.

Apparel prices as a whole decreased 0.3 percent in February and were down 1 percent against a year earlier. Men’s apparel showed the only increase, rising 1.8 percent last month, which kept total apparel prices from falling more sharply. Girls’ apparel declined 3.3 percent and 5.1 percent from a year ago.

Two factors were at play in the price declines, said Malinda Harrell, an economist at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“There was still a lot of fall-winter merchandise in stores that was not sold in February,” Harrell said. “Normally, we expect a lot of that to be gone.”

The second factor was higher discounting on the spring and summer apparel in stores, she said.

The falling prices in apparel were accompanied by flat or falling prices in many sectors, including energy and food, combining to keep prices for all goods and services unchanged in February, after a 0.4 percent rise in January and December.

The so-called core prices, which exclude volatile energy and food prices, were also flat last month, after a 0.3 percent increase in January that followed nine straight months of 0.2 percent increases.

This story first appeared in the March 17, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Some economists warned that the moderation in retail prices, which are considered the truest barometer of inflation, is temporary.

“The pretty result for February top-line consumer prices will turn ugly in March, as gasoline prices rise into record-setting territory,” Kenneth Beauchemin, a U.S. economist with Global Insight, wrote in an analysis.