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October sales improve at department stores

David Gill -- Home Textiles Today, November 20, 2000

WASHINGTON -Sales at general-merchandise department stores gained a modest but respectable 0.4 percent in October over September, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. This retail category finished the Halloween month with nearly $26.8 billion in total sales.

Coupled with the announcements by some of the nation's major retail chains that they had either met or beat Wall Street's guesses on their third-quarter results, the store picture as a whole has looked a lot worse. Whether this actually results in a healthy holiday shopping season is still another question.

Because of the increase in general-merchandise sales-and because apparel specialty stores posted a dramatic 1 percent increase in October sales (to $12.2 billion)-the National Retail Federation stood by its prediction for a 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent increase in 2000 holiday retail sales over last year.

In a joint report compiled with Deloitte & Touche, the NRF projected holiday retail checkouts to total $196 billion to $198 billion this year. Evaluating last week's Commerce report, NRF chief economist Rosalind Wells said, "The economy and retail sales are following an expected path of moderate but sustainable growth. It's clear that low unemployment, low inflation, solid consumer confidence and stable energy prices remain the most reliable indicators of consumer buying activity."

David Orr, chief economist with First Union Economics Group, supported this analysis. "Looking at [October retail sales], it would seem that the Fed is getting just what it wanted-a gradual moderation in consumer spending," he said.

Overall, the Commerce Department pegged October U.S. retail sales at just short of $273.2 billion, 0.1 percent above their September level. This includes a major downward drag from the auto sector, whose October sales fell 1 percent, to $67.2 billion.

Aside from the apparel sector's strong showing, retailers of building materials experienced a boom market last month, pushing sales up 1.6 percent over their September level, to $15.3 billion.

The drug/proprietary channel also saw a small outburst, increasing its sales last month by 1.4 percent, to $11.4 billion.

First Union's Orr noted that, overall, U.S. retail outdid the analysts' predictions for a 0.1 percent drop in October. "Given the fact that September's 0.9 percent jump [in overall retail sales] was not revised downward, the October number gets the fourth quarter off to a decent start," he added.

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