Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — Retail prices for women’s apparel in September increased a seasonally adjusted 0.7 percent against August, the first uptick after three consecutive monthly declines, the Labor Department reported Thursday.
On a year-to-year basis, women’s apparel prices increased 1.8 percent for the eighth consecutive monthly upturn, demonstrating retailers’ sustained ability to reverse a deflationary cycle that dragged on for more than two years.
Still, with a general slump in apparel sales, stores won’t likely be able to push through prices that are much higher, said Maureen Allyn, chief economist, Scudder, Stevens and Clark. She described the balance between apparel demand and supply as rather fragile and said that should consumer confidence be shaken because of higher unemployment or other events, apparel prices could easily take a tumble.
“Should anything go wrong, we’ll be quickly in the negative column, but I’m not predicting that for the short term,” she said. “I also have concerns about overcapacity in the U.S. of retail floor space, which won’t surface in the form of falling prices as long as the stock market keeps up and there’s economic growth.”
Irwin Cohen, chairman, Deloitte & Touche’s trade, retail and distribution group, said he doesn’t expect to see prices fall back, but given competition in the industry, there won’t be any large markups, he said.
“I think you’ve got some moderate increases in apparel prices, but it’s just moderate. You still have the global market forces tending to keep prices in check,” he said.
In the overall economy, mild inflation continues to prevail with prices for all retail goods edging up 0.2 percent for the third consecutive month. Compared to September 1996, retail prices last month, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, were up 2.2 percent.
All apparel prices increased 0.1 percent for the month and were up 1.1 percent from year-ago levels. Retail prices for men’s wear were increased 0.6 percent for the month and were up 3.1 percent from September 1996. Girls’ apparel prices increased 2.4 percent last month and were up 2.5 percent over the 12 months.
A Labor analyst said the pickup in women’s apparel prices for the month can be largely pinned to the continued introduction of higher-priced fall apparel.
Among the women’s apparel prices tracked by Labor analysts were coats and jackets, which declined 0.5 percent for the month and were up 7.6 percent over the year. Dress prices increased 2.3 percent in September and were down 3.1 percent over the year, as prices for separates and sportswear increased 1.2 percent for the month and were up 1.8 percent over the 12 months. Prices for underwear, nightwear, hosiery and accessories increased 0.4 percent for the month and were up 1.3 percent over the year, and prices for suits declined 2.4 percent for the month and were up 4.8 percent against year-ago levels.

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