WASHINGTON — Consumers showed some confidence in their purchasing power in September, as sales at apparel specialty stores and discounters rose, in line with an increase in retail sales in the overall economy, the U.S. Commerce Department’s monthly retail sales report showed Monday.
While most economists and retail experts said it was a positive report, some warned that looming economic issues could dampen spending as the holidays approach.
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Apparel and accessories stores posted a 0.6 percent seasonally adjusted increase to $20.1 billion in September compared with August, while sales at general merchandise stores, a category that includes department stores and discounters, increased 0.3 percent to $52.6 billion. Department stores showed weakness, posting a 0.2 percent decline in sales to $15.3 billion last month.
On a year-over-year basis, sales at apparel and accessories stores were 4.9 percent above September 2011. However sales at department stores were down 1.3 percent compared with a year earlier and sales at general merchandise stores fell 1.1 percent.
In the overall economy, retail sales increased 1.1 percent to $412.9 billion, beating economists’ forecasts.
“This is a good report. With confidence and spending up, the third quarter ended on a cheerful note, and the holiday sales season is looking somewhat brighter,” said Chris G. Christopher Jr., senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight, which is forecasting holiday retail sales to grow by 4.7 percent over a year ago.
It will “not be as strong as the previous two holiday seasons, but respectable nonetheless,” Christopher said. “The real game-changer this holiday season will be e-commerce retail sales, which have been gaining share on brick-and-mortar stores.”
Kevin Regan, senior managing director at FTI Consulting, said the September sales numbers were better than he expected.
“The confidence measures were also better than expected in October, which tells me that people are feeling better, but I think there is a continued thrift mentality out there,” Regan said.
Scott Hoyt, director of consumer economics at Moody’s Analytics, said the September sales data was a positive, but he echoed concerns about economic uncertainties that could impact holiday sales.
“To the extent that consumers have to spend more at grocery stores and gasoline stations, that does not bode well for sales at other retailers,” Hoyt said. “We’re looking for top-line level growth, but growth that is probably a bit more modest than we have seen in the last couple holiday seasons.”
Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation, said, “While the latest retail sales data indicates continued improvement for the economy, increasing gas prices and the looming fiscal cliff still pose serious challenges to the momentum we’ve seen in consumer spending.”