WASHINGTON — Apparel and accessories store sales increased a seasonally adjusted 2.6 percent in November, outpacing department stores, which posted a 1 percent gain.

This story first appeared in the December 14, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Total retail and food service sales grew twice as fast as economists had forecast, advancing 1.2 percent in November compared with October, the Commerce Department said Thursday. Total retail sales of all goods and services showed broad-based strength, led by a 6.8 percent jump at gas stations because of higher prices.

The strong showing of consumer spending, which makes up two-thirds of the economy, assuaged some fears about a possible recession.

“There’s nothing like good news at Christmastime to make people feel better,” said James Smith, chief economist for Parsec Financial Management. “It looks like an amazingly good month.”

Compared with a year ago, sales at apparel and accessories stores jumped 6.6 percent to $19.3 billion, as volume at department stores fell 0.4 percent to $17.5 billion.

Department stores, the only type of retail sector that posted a year-to-year sales decline, are likely still being affected by the transformation of the old May department stores, such as Hecht’s, to the Macy’s nameplate, Smith said.

Sales at direct merchants, including online and through mail-order catalogues, advanced 1.9 percent to $25.6 billion. But consumers going online or venturing out for their holiday shopping faced economic pressures, from surging energy and gasoline prices to the slowdown in the housing market.

“But retailers are hungry for sales, and the recent stepping up of marketing programs and discounts appears to be delivering some dividends in terms of maintaining reasonably good sales momentum,” Global Insight U.S. economist Brian Bethune wrote in an analysis.

Even if stores were able to drive sales with price promotions and other incentives, their impact on the bottom line won’t be clear until retailers report earnings next year.

“Consumers have saved plenty of holiday shopping for December,” said Rosalind Wells, the National Retail Federation’s chief economist.

The average person had completed only 36.4 percent of their holiday shopping by the end of November, according to a survey commissioned by the NRF.