WASHINGTON — Retail apparel prices declined a seasonally adjusted 0.4 percent in October compared with September, but increased 1.4 percent from a year ago, the Labor Department said Wednesday in its Consumer Price Index.

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Women’s apparel prices rose 0.3 percent in the month and advanced 2.1 percent year-over-year. Men’s apparel prices declined 0.1 percent month-to-month and fell 1 percent in 12-month comparisons.

The overall CPI was up 0.3 percent for the month, but declined 0.2 percent compared with a year earlier. The so-called core index, which excludes the volatile food and energy sectors, rose 0.2 percent month-to-month and advanced 1.7 percent compared with October 2008.

“Inflation looks pretty benign, and then I look at apparel and it looks very benign,” said Philip Swagel, visiting professor at McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and a former top economist for the Treasury Department.

Apparel prices were down in most categories for October, Swagel said. Retail prices for women’s outerwear declined 0.3 percent and 3.1 percent compared with a year ago. Dress prices were down 0.7 percent, but rose 1 percent year-over-year. Women’s suits and separates dropped 0.7 percent, but rose 0.6 percent in 12-month comparisons. The broad women’s underwear, nightwear, sportswear and accessories category saw prices rise 1.8 percent in October and spike 7.6 percent year-to-year.

Men’s suits, sport coats and outerwear prices increased 1.3 percent, but fell 4.1 percent year-over-year. Men’s furnishings rose 1.1 percent and 2.2 percent in 12-month comparisons. Men’s shirts and sweaters declined 1.2 percent and 1.4 percent year-over-year.

Girls’ apparel declined 5.1 percent and rose 0.5 percent compared with a year earlier. Boys’ apparel prices declined 2.6 percent month-to-month, but rose 3 percent in 12-month comparisons.

To some extent, lower prices in October could indicate that retailers are responding to consumers’ search for value, Swagel said. Retailers report that consumers are coming into stores and starting to spend, but doing so cautiously because economic headwinds continue to slow the recovery, he said.

“The October report on consumer prices indicates very little pressure on core consumer prices,” said Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist at IHS Global Insight.

The lack of pressure will allow the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low, Bethune said, which will help until signs of a sustained economic rebound strengthen.

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