WASHINGTON — Sales at clothing and accessories stores edged up by a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent in October, continuing to rebound in a relatively weak retail environment, the Commerce Department reported Friday.

This story first appeared in the November 17, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Apparel and accessories store sales increased 4.6 percent year to year to $15.14 billion in October, which was a slower pace than the year-over-year comparisons in September, which gained a strong 8.7 percent.

However, department stores failed to get out of the doldrums in October, posting a 0.7 percent decline in sales to $18.32 billion against September and a 3.9 percent drop in sales against a year ago. Sales at general merchandise stores were flat for the month at $40.5 billion, but sales rose 4.6 percent against October 2002.

“On a year-over-year basis, growth slipped a bit for apparel and accessories stores, but they still look pretty healthy,” said Steve Spiwak, an economist with Retail Forward.

Sales at department stores, on the other hand, were less robust.

“Department stores are still bleeding sales, as they have done every month this year,” Spiwak said. “It is tough competition from the discounters and, of course, a lot of people are turning to apparel specialty stores for apparel purchases.”

In the overall economy, retail sales fell 0.3 percent in October, marking the second decline in two months. The drop was driven by falling auto and gasoline prices. There were bright spots, however, including sales at furniture, consumer electronics and home furnishings stores, as well as restaurants.

Many economists argued that the tax cuts implemented by the Bush administration wouldn’t stimulate the economy in the long run and some claimed October’s retail sales are a reflection of that.

“We saw a strong summer surge that was driven by tax cuts, refinancing and tax-rebate checks, but now we are seeing a fading impact,” Spiwak said. “The cash flow impact that initially sparked retail sales has started to fade and will continue going into the fourth quarter.”

However, the National Retail Federation was bullish about the overall retail picture, despite a softening in sales.

“Retail sales are continuing to gain momentum in time for the busiest shopping season of the year,” said Rosalind Wells, chief economist with the NRF.

The NRF has forecast a 5.7 percent increase in holiday sales in November and December. It would be the highest increase since 1999.

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