Byline: Jim Ostroff

WASHINGTON — Buoyed by a consumer buying binge for apparel, retail sales in the sector rose 1.4 percent in March, the Commerce Department reported Thursday, defying forecasts that a “late” Easter season would put a dent in these expenditures.
Sales at apparel and accessories stores jumped 2.3 percent in March to $11.98 billion from $11.71 billion in February. Year-to-year sales were up 7.4 percent. Overall, retail sales rose a modest 0.4 percent in March to $269.2 billion, the agency reported.
Sales at department stores rose 0.2 percent for the month to $25.98 billion from $25.75 billion in February. Department store sales rose 4.9 percent for the year.
General merchandise stores, including discount, department and variety, posted sales gains of 0.7 percent last month to $33.36 billion compared with $33.14 billion in February. For the year ending in March, general merchandise store sales were up 6.4 percent.
The report was a “pleasant surprise” to the National Retail Federation, which had been looking for a slight downturn in this indicator due to the fact that this year the Easter season has shifted to mid-April rather than late March, when it more often occurs.
“High consumer confidence and the strength of the spring apparel line helped the industry overcome the late shift in Easter,” said Rosalind Wells, the NRF’s chief economist. “With March sales so unexpectedly high and April sales propelled by Easter, the spring season is bound to be a great success.”
The NRF said a robust real estate market continued to help retailers, too, bringing customers into stores to buy home goods.
Overall, the U.S. consumer buying spree, which extends back well into last year, appears hardly to be influenced by some larger economic trends. For example, the Federal Reserve has signaled it soon may increase interest rates for the sixth time in less than a year in an effort to keep the economy from overheating and triggering inflation.
Active consumer purchasing for apparel continued in March, with the largest single-month jump in a decade, despite a 1 percent jump in wholesale prices. Virtually all this increase was attributable to sharply higher gasoline prices. Economists are forecasting a rise in retail prices of perhaps 0.5 percent when the U.S. releases its March Consumer Price Index report today.
Analysts foresee the nation’s inflation rate remaining steady, especially since oil-producing nations now have agreed to substantially increase production, which should cause fuel prices to soften in the coming months.
A recent survey by the National Association for Business Economics reinforced the notion that inflation remains in check. Fifty-nine percent of the firms surveyed said their retail prices were unchanged in the first quarter of this year and 12 percent reported lowering their prices. Another 29 percent reported increasing their prices, up slightly from the previous monthly survey.