Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — Apparel and accessories stores generated $142.54 billion in sales last year, a 5.5 percent increase from 1999 — a strong gain that reflects a thriving economy early in 2000, the Commerce Department reported Friday.
Although robust at times, last year showed an overall percentage decline in apparel and accessories store sales. By comparison, in 1999, sales for the category increased 6.3 percent against 1998.
Mirroring industry financial reports, the government shows apparel and accessories store sales in December also continued to moderate with the rest of the economy, increasing a seasonally adjusted 0.9 percent against November to $12.12 billion. In November, sales dropped 0.9 percent against October to $12.01 billion, according to adjusted figures.
Department store sales, excluding leased departments, posted $315.66 billion in sales last year, up 6.4 percent from 1999. By comparison, department store sales in 1999 increased 7.7 percent against 1998.
In December, department store sales fell a seasonally adjusted 0.6 percent to $26.50 billion. Sales at general merchandise stores last year increased 7 percent to $405.54 billion from 1999. In 1999, sales in the category showed a 9.2 percent increase from 1998.
Economists analyzed the December and 2000 retail sales report as another indicator of an economy that’s slowing after eight years of dynamic incremental growth reaching upward of 8 percent.
Rosalind Wells, chief economist with the National Retail Federation, said the government’s Christmas season retail sales figures appear more robust than what the industry reported.
Wells said the government’s figures may appear stronger because they are calculated strictly according to overall sales and not by the same-store sales method used by the industry.
“The economy is definitely weakening,” Wells said. “I don’t think there will be a recession and I don’t think we are in a recession, but there will continue to be much slower growth.”
Andrew Hodge, an economist with the WEFA Group in Philadelphia, said the slowdown in the economy to around 2.5 percent growth may reflect a new kind of recession.
“What we’re having is a relative constriction of the business cycle,” Hodge said. “It’s a gray area that falls short of having two negative quarters of declines in growth.”

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