Byline: Jennifer Owens

WASHINGTON — Monthly retail sales statistics released Thursday by the Commerce Department showed growth continuing for general merchandisers in March, but at a slower pace than they saw in February.
According to seasonally adjusted figures, March sales in general merchandise stores posted a 0.3 percent gain over February, while revised figures showed that February sales rose a healthier 1.3 percent against January. Against a year ago, however, March sales in the category — which includes discounters, department stores and variety stores — were up 8.6 percent, compared with February’s 8 percent rise year to year.
Sales at department stores alone, excluding leased departments, were up 0.7 percent in March as compared with February, while revised February figures showed sales rose 1.5 percent against January. March sales were up 10.1 percent against a year ago, while February sales were up only 8.8 percent.
At apparel and accessories stores, March sales rose 0.6 percent over February, while in February, sales increased only 0.3 percent against January. Against year-ago figures, March sales were up 5.2 percent, while February sales were up only 1.4 percent.
Rosalind Wells, chief economist for the National Retail Federation, said she expects such improvements to continue for apparel and accessories stores. After months of bleak returns, she said, “it’s now their turn.”
Regarding department store sales, Sandra Shaber, an economist with the WEFA Group in Philadelphia, said their smaller increases still show “a pretty good gain.” Shaber said that while some big retail chains posted anemic sales numbers last week, the overall category has done well in recent months.
“Department stores don’t have a lot to complain about,” she said.
Wells said she was not surprised by the slowdown for department stores. “January and February were so darn strong [in sales], they just couldn’t repeat it,” she said.
That strength, said Wells, came partly from mild weather combined with the ever-strong economy. The remaining explanation, she said, rests with consumer expectations: “It seems like consumers, instead of rushing and spending all their money at Christmas, saved their money for the sales…. People are looking for a little edge.”
That kind of thinking helped lift the first quarter’s total retail sales to 6.2 percent over the same period a year ago, Wells said. Overall, retail sales totaled $215.6 billion in March, an increase of 0.2 percent over February and up 5.7 percent compared with the same month last year.
Wells said she expects growth in the second quarter to slow, especially since Easter fell in March, or the first quarter, this year. That should make this year’s April comparisons even tougher, she said.
Shaber agreed, saying that consumer spending, which lately has outpaced wage increases, will slow down as interest rates, which the Fed raised last month, start to raise the cost of credit card and financing bills.
“I think consumer spending is already slowing down a bit and in the months ahead will get more in line with income rates,” she said.

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