WASHINGTON — Retail sales in January were driven by gains at department and general merchandise stores, while specialty store sales fell as younger consumers, hampered by severe winter storms and high unemployment, held back on picking up postholiday bargains, according to economists.

This story first appeared in the February 16, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Department store sales rose a seasonally adjusted 0.5 percent last month compared with December to $15.5 billion, while sales at general merchandise stores, a category that includes discounters and department stores, increased 0.8 percent to $51.7 billion, the U.S. Commerce Department said Tuesday.

However, specialty store sales continued showing signs of weakness, posting a second month in a row of declines. Sales at apparel and accessories stores fell 0.3 percent to $18.3 billion.

In comparisons with January 2010, sales at specialty stores were up 3.4 percent, while sales at general merchandise stores increased 3.1 percent, but sales at department stores fell 0.8 percent.

“General merchandise and department stores showed significant gains in January after running into negative territory in December,” said Chris G. Christopher Jr., senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight.

Other winners in January were online retailers “that benefited from post-Christmas shopping and inclement weather,” said Christopher, adding that “staying at home boosts Internet shopping as long as ice storms do not knock out the electricity.”

Kevin Regan, senior managing director and retail industry expert at FTI Consulting, said there was a softening in annual comparisons in all three retail store categories.

“The general merchandise category is somewhat soft and department store sales continue to disappoint a bit,” said Regan, adding there have been some bright spots at retail.

Stores like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus had “reasonably good January numbers,” he said.

But apparel specialty stores have also been softening, due in part to shrinking discretionary budgets of unemployed younger people, he said.

“January is always a return month and there could have been some weather-related impact, but the Millennials are spending less because of their condition [unemployment],” said Regan.

In the overall economy, retail sales rose 0.3 percent last month, but the increase fell below economists’ expectations. Economists had projected a stronger sales gain in January because it was the first month consumers were benefiting from a Social Security tax cut in their paychecks. However, severe winter weather across much of the country kept consumers at home and contributed to the weaker retail sales.

The S&P Retail Index inched up 0.23 points to 523.43 Tuesday as the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 0.3 percent, or 41.55 points, to 12,226.64.

The day’s retail decliners included The Talbots Inc., off 4.5 percent to $5.79; Abercrombie & Fitch Co., 2 percent to $53.41; Macy’s Inc., 1.3 percent to $23.55, and The Men’s Wearhouse Inc., 1.1 percent to $27.20.

Among the larger increases came from Perry Ellis International Inc., up 5.2 percent to $30.81 following its elevation of earnings guidance late Monday, and Joe’s Jeans Inc., up 3.5 percent to $1.20.

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