WASHINGTON — Specialty stores and general merchandise stores posted modest sales gains in April while sales at department stores fell, the Commerce Department said Thursday.

 

Apparel and accessories stores sales increased a seasonally adjusted 0.3 percent to $18.7 billion last month over March 2011 levels, while sales at general merchandise stores, a category that includes discounters and department stores, edged up slightly by 0.1 percent to $52.1 billion.

 

Sales at department stores fell 0.2 percent to $15.3 billion in April, an indication that consumers are pulling back on spending somewhat as higher gasoline prices eat into their discretionary income, according to economists.

 

“Clearly consumers are continuing to spend but I think at a slower pace, largely as a result of increases in gasoline prices which are clearly eating into their budgets and negatively impacting growth at all retailers that don’t sell gasoline,” said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody’s Analytics. “It seemed that all discretionary items had a weak month and apparel is certainly a discretionary item and will see some cuts.”

 

“Positive economic indicators such as increases in job openings and wage growth are certainly helping boost consumers’ confidence, and support spending,” said Jack Kleinhenz., chief economist at the National Retail Federation. “While there are reasons to be optimistic, plenty of other concerns exist which could very easily shift consumers’ spending habits, including decreasing home prices, high unemployment levels and rising costs at the pump.”

 

Hoyt attributed weakness in department store sales to consumer spending habits, which he said are currently “favoring” specialty stores. He also said department stores are “struggling” due to a “space issue.”

 

“We know that Wal-Mart and Target, for example, are more focused on expanding their Super Centers…and as a result we are not getting a whole lot of space expansion in the department store segment,” Hoyt said.
Bob Duffy, senior managing director and leader of the retail industry practice for FTI Consulting, said specialty stores sales have greater variability than department stores.

 

“They fell deeper and harder and steeper than department stores over the past couple of years and now that there is a little uptick, they are getting the benefit of that,” Duffy said.

 

Overall retail sales rose 0.5 percent, slightly below economists’ expectations, to $389.4 billion last month, fueled by an increase in gasoline prices and sales. It was the 10th consecutive month of overall retail sales gains.

 

The Labor Department’s Producer Price Index, also released Thursday, showed that wholesale apparel and textile price inflation moderated again in April as soaring cotton prices began to weaken somewhat, although they remained at historic highs.

 

Most U.S-made textile and apparel categories saw minimal price increases although year-to-year price comparisons were still substantial in many categories.

 

Wholesale prices for domestically produced apparel edged up just 0.1 percent in April and were up 2.1 percent compared with a year earlier. Prices for women’s apparel rose 0.3 percent last month and were 0.7 percent above the year earlier level, while prices for men’s apparel fell 0.6 percent last month but were 2.3 percent higher than April 2010.

 

The main category driving the increase within the women’s category was swimwear, which posted a price increase of 2.3 percent in April and was 2.1 percent higher than a year earlier. Within the men’s category, the biggest segment with wholesale price deflation was jeans, which fell 2 percent in April but was still 0.5 percent above a year earlier.

 

Textile mill apparel fabric prices rose 1.8 percent in April and were 11.9 percent higher than the prior-year level. Domestically produced yarns rose 3 percent in April and soared 29.5 percent against April 2010. That category was driven primarily by increases in spun cotton yarns, which saw a 5.5 percent in April and an 83.7 percent increase year-to-year. Domestically produced knit fabric prices fell 2 percent in April but were 11.7 percent higher than year earlier levels, while prices for finished fabrics rose 2.6 percent last month and were up 7.4 percent year-to-year.

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