WOMEN’S APPAREL PRICES UP

WASHINGTON — Retail prices for women’s apparel in February shot up a seasonally adjusted 2 percent against January for the first monthly increase in three months, the Labor Department reported Wednesday in its Consumer Price Index.
Compared to February 2000, women’s apparel prices last month gained 0.8 percent, the first year-over-year increase since October 1998. Despite these twin increases, analysts don’t see February’s price report as a signal that retailers will increase apparel prices in the midst of a softening economy.
“One month doesn’t point to inflation,” is how a women’s apparel price analyst at Labor sized up the changes. The analyst said the uptick in prices in part can be pinned to retailers not immediately discounting spring apparel.
Maureen Allyn, chief economist at Scudder Kemper Investments, said retailers still have to keep prices in check in order to maintain consumer purchasing. This is easy to do, she said, since the dollar remains strong and imports are even more inexpensive with the global economic downturn.
“If you can put value in front of the customer, you are going to do all right,” Allyn said.
She suspects the increases in women’s apparel prices in February reflect the difficulty Labor statisticians have in pricing garments when seasons change because it’s sometimes hard to find garments that are comparable to last year’s styles.
As for the general inflation picture, prices for all retail goods last month increased a moderate 0.3 percent, reflecting a downturn in energy prices. In January, higher energy prices pushed retail prices up 0.9 percent. Compared to February 2000, prices for all retail goods increased 3.5 percent.
Rajeev Dhawan, director of the economic forecasting center at Georgia State University, said while “inflation is a little bit of a problem,” price increases aren’t enough to turn off consumers.
“It’s now Wall Street and the bond market that react,” Dhawan said. “Consumers are still sheltered. These aren’t bad inflation numbers.”
Meanwhile, retail prices for all apparel in February increased 0.8 percent against January, but compared to February 2000 they declined 0.6 percent. Girls’ apparel prices increased 2.3 percent for the month and rose 0.6 percent over the year. Retail prices for men’s apparel declined 0.4 percent in February and fell 2.6 percent over the year.
In the categories of women’s apparel tracked by Labor, prices for dresses increased 1 percent in February against January, but dropped 2.2 percent from February 2000. Suit and separates prices increased 6.3 percent for the month and rose 2 percent over the year, as prices for underwear, nightwear, sportswear and accessories increased 3.2 percent for the month and increased 1.3 percent from year-ago levels.
Outerwear prices rose 1.5 percent for the month and jumped 9.3 percent from a year ago.