WASHINGTON — Retail apparel sales rose uniformly in March, with clothing and accessories stores posting the strongest gains, indicating that consumers remained resilient despite higher gasoline prices, the U.S. Commerce Department’s monthly report showed Monday.
The improving job market appeared to buoy consumer confidence and help spur spending in the face of higher fuel costs. Despite the positive sales picture, retailers continue to remain cautious about the second quarter based on volatile commodity prices.
Specialty store sales increased a seasonally adjusted 0.9 percent to $20 billion in March compared with February, while sales at department stores rose 0.3 percent to $15.5 billion last month. General merchandise store sales, a category that includes discounters and department stores, posted a 0.7 percent increase in sales to $54 billion in March.
In the overall economy, retail sales rose 0.8 percent to $411.1 billion, exceeding economists’ expectations.
“Retailers had another good month as unseasonably warmer weather, better job prospects, a strong stock market and the new Apple iPad had consumers opening their wallets despite feeling the pump price pinch,” said Chris G. Christopher Jr., senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight. “The unseasonably warmer winter has assisted in getting Americans out to automobile dealerships, building material stores, clothing outlets and sporting good stores. Clothing and building material stores have come on like gangbusters since the beginning of winter.”
Kevin Regan, senior managing director at FTI Consulting, said the sales report shows that the spending recovery is “continuing to show strength.”
“What surprised me was I thought gasoline prices would dampen momentum a bit, but that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Regan said. “The other interesting thing is that momentum seemed to be across most discretionary categories, including the clothing side, which was very strong.”
Regan said he was also surprised that the year-over-year percentage change in department store volume was not higher. Sales at department stores were 0.7 percent above March 2011, while sales at apparel and accessories stores were 7.9 percent higher and sales at general merchandise stores were up 3.7 percent.