WASHINGTON — Retail sales hit a bump in June, with three major categories tracked by the Commerce Department — apparel and accessories stores, department stores and general merchandise stores — posting small declines as higher energy costs and unseasonable weather caused consumer spending to drop.

This story first appeared in the July 15, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

However, economists were upbeat about year-over-year sales, which have increased in most sectors except for department stores, and are looking for a boost from back-to-school selling.

Apparel and accessories store sales fell 0.5 percent in June to $15.7 billion compared with May, but surged 6 percent against June 2003, according to the Commerce Department’s retail sales report released Wednesday.

Department store sales, mired in a long-term slump, declined 0.8 percent in June to $17.6 billion and dropped 1.3 percent compared with a year ago. General merchandise store sales dipped by 0.2 percent in June to $41.69 billion, but surged 6.7 percent for the 12 months.

“If you look at year-over-year, clothing and accessories stores are still up 6 percent, which isn’t all that bad of a number,” said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research. “It reflects moderate growth.”

Charles McMillion, president and chief economist at MBG Information Services, said strong apparel store sales earlier in the year contributed to an 8.9 percent increase in the first six months of 2004 versus the same period in 2003.

Department stores, on the other hand, continued to struggle, Steidtmann said.

“We’re not building new malls and there are not a lot of new stores opening,” he said. “It’s a very mature business that has a lot of competition from both specialty stores for fashion and discounters for price.”

In the overall economy, retail sales fell 1.1 percent in June, but remained 6.3 percent above a year ago. The decline was driven primarily by a drop in auto sales, reflecting a lack of incentives by auto dealers, Steidtmann said. Higher gas prices also had an impact on consumer spending, with sales at gas stations rising 22.5 percent over June 2003, largely due to the higher prices.

“After several months of rising energy costs, gas prices have taken their toll on consumers and retailers,” the National Retail Federation said in a statement.

The federation noted that the GAFS category, which covers general merchandise, apparel and accessories stores; furniture and home furnishings; electronics and appliances stores, and sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores, was flat in June. The category was up 5.9 percent compared with last year.

“It’s not surprising that consumers took a breather last month due to higher gas prices and unseasonable weather,” said Rosalind Wells, chief economist at the NRF. “Retailers will look to the back-to-school season to offset June’s sluggish sales.”

Steidtmann said, “The fundamentals of consumer spending are a little mixed. Mortgage refinancing has declined fairly significantly, the effects of the tax reductions are beginning to wane and wages are not going anywhere. But we have created quite a few new jobs — 1.3 million — since the beginning of the year.”