WASHINGTON — Small sales gains in January gave apparel retailers some good news, but a full recovery could prove elusive for a long time.

This story first appeared in the February 15, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Department store sales increased 0.2 percent in January compared with a month earlier, while specialty store sales rose 0.3 percent, the Commerce Department said Friday. Compared with a year earlier, specialty store sales advanced 0.3 percent to $17.3 million, but department store sales declined 0.3 percent to $15.8 million.

“Retail sales growth in January provides retailers and consumers with additional evidence that the worst is behind us and economic recovery is under way,” said Casey Chroust, executive vice president for retail operations with the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

General merchandise stores, which include department stores, fared particularly well in January. Retail sales for the channel increased 1.5 percent month-to-month and rose 3.2 percent to $49.1 million compared with a year earlier. Economists attributed the category’s performance to consumers spending on necessities.

“We continue to see the economy show subtle signs of improvement,” said Rosalind Wells, chief economist for the National Retail Federation, but she cautioned the recovery has a long way to go.

January’s results were encouraging, said Kevin Regan, senior managing director and retail industry expert with FTI Consulting, but given the continued pressure from a high unemployment rate and other economic factors, it is hard to say for certain if a full recovery has taken hold.

“If we have turned the corner, it’s a slow turn,” Regan said.

Some economic indicators have shown signs of improvement in recent months, but the unemployment rate continues to hover around 10 percent. On Thursday, the President’s Council of Economic Advisers predicted the unemployment rate is likely to remain high through 2012.

“Retailers understand the road to a full recovery is a long one and until U.S. job losses stop and job creation begins, consumer activity will remain subdued,” Chroust said.

Sales for all goods and services increased 0.5 percent in January from a month earlier, and rose 4.7 percent to $355.8 billion compared with January 2009, beating expectations.

“After considerable hand-wringing about the underlying strength of retail sales in the past few months, this is a solid-looking report,” Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist for IHS Global Insight.

“February may not be anywhere near as robust [as January] in view of the unusual severity of winter storms, but real consumer spending is still on track to expand by 2.6 percent in the first quarter of 2010,” Bethune added.

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