Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — Sales at clothing and accessory stores in March declined a seasonally adjusted 0.3 percent, reversing three consecutive months of increases, the Commerce Department reported Friday.
However, compared with March 2001, clothing and accessory store sales posted a strong 4 percent increase.
Likewise, sales at general merchandise and department stores in March dipped 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent, respectively. But, on a year-over-year basis, general-merchandise store sales last month climbed 7.2 percent and at department stores were up 6.3 percent.
By comparison, overall retail sales, excluding food and cars, increased 0.3 percent in March against February and were up 3.4 percent from year-ago levels.
The decline in March apparel, accessory, department and general-merchandise store sales reflects “a little pullback by consumers,” said Diane Kutyla, economist at the Consumer Business Practice unit of Deloitte & Touche. However, she said “the basic fundamentals” for consumer spending point to future sales growth.
Kutyla cited increases in income tax refunds, growth in disposable incomes and an uptick in employees working overtime as the result of increased manufacturing as positive signs for apparel sales increasing. One negative factor that could influence consumer spending on apparel is the rising price of gasoline, she said.
In dollars, sales at clothing and accessory stores last month were $14.7 billion. Sales at general-merchandise stores were $36.5 billion and $20.6 billion at department stores, excluding lease departments.
Frank Badillo, senior retail economist at Retail Forward, expressed some concern for rising gasoline and mortgage prices as dampening apparel retail sales. But he added that consumers have “bounced back somewhat from the pessimism that set in right after 9/11, and they’re holding their own as we get further into the year.”

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