WASHINGTON — Sales at apparel and accessory stores in January increased a seasonally adjusted 2.5 percent against December, as general merchandise sales gained 2.1 percent — healthy numbers for a slow economy, economists said of Wednesday’s Commerce Department report.

Department store sales, excluding leased departments, gained 2 percent for the month, to $20.6 billion.

Helping to drive the increases were after-Christmas sales, while a sustained decline in gasoline prices also has put more disposable income in consumer pockets, said Frank Badillo, senior retail economist at Retail Forward Inc. of Columbus, Ohio.

However, despite these relatively strong numbers, Badillo forecasted that “the retail environment is going to remain weak.”

“There is some unemployment in the pipeline that has yet to hit home for consumers and it should hit home in the first half of the year,” Badillo added.

Rajeev Dhawan, director of economic forecasting at Georgia State University, said the increase in January apparel, department store and general merchandise store sales, on top of December’s gains, are signs an economic recovery is under way. Other signals include an easing of job losses, increases in consumer confidence and a slight decline in applications for unemployment insurance, he said.

However, Dhawan added: “It’s a nascent recovery that could be snuffed out in seconds.” Future economic gains “will all depend upon job growth and that will be determined over time.”

Compared with year-ago levels, sales at apparel and accessory stores last month increased 2.1 percent, to $14.7 billion, and general merchandise sales for the period rose 5.5 percent, to $36.4 billion. Compared with January 2001, department store sales were up 3.9 percent.

Given the slow economy, the increase in apparel, general merchandise and department store sales surprised Maureen Allyn, chief economist at Scudder, Kemper Investments.

“For retailers, it proves that if you can price it correctly, it will move,” said Allyn, noting how low interest rates, which have translated into lower mortgage payments, continue to push buying power. “People are still liquid and they are still interested in buying if the price is right.”

However, Allyn added that she’s “still concerned about the long-term sustainability” of sales increases. Although she sees the weakened job market stabilizing, “companies are clamping down on wage increases and clamping down on compensation, generally, so there isn’t a big pot of money out there coming forward in income.”

Meanwhile, overall retail sales in January declined 0.2 percent against December, a number that largely reflects a 4.3 percent drop in car sales. However, overall retail sales last month posted year-over-year gains of 4 percent.

Positive news on the retail front helped stocks continue to rally Wednesday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped 125.93 points, or 1.3 percent, to close at 9,989.67. The index last closed above 10,000 on Jan. 10. The Nasdaq picked up 24.95 points, or 1.4 percent, to end the session at 1,859.16. The Standard & Poor’s retail index also advanced and ended up 9.97 points, or 1.1 percent, at 949.96.

Among the day’s winners were Dillard’s, up $1, or 6.2 percent, to $17.25; Nordstrom, up $1.68, or 7.1 percent, to $25.30; Target, up $1.02, or 2.3 percent, to $45; Hot Topic, up 53 cents, or 2.5 percent, to $21.40; Limited, up 67 cents, or 3.8 percent, to $18.28, and Value City, up 34 cents, or 11.2 percent, to $3.38.


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