Easter Did Little to Boost Apparel Retail Sales in March

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Apparel retailers suffered another setback in March as consumers continued to shift their spending from clothing and accessories to furniture and other home products.

According to data recently released from the U.S. Department of Commerce, retail sales increased by less than 0.5% in March on a 12-month smoothed basis, to $446.8 billion, the smallest monthly increase in thirteen months.

Much of the lackluster performance was due to an almost 2 percent drop in sales at automobile dealers and parts stores, which had their worst monthly performance since September 2009. Taking cars out of the mix, retail sales rose by 1.1% on a 12-month smoothed basis.

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Easter’s arrival during the last week of the month did little to get people into malls to buy spring apparel, despite the warmer-than-normal weather in much of the country. According to Big Data analytics firm RetailNext, brick-and-mortar store traffic dropped by 9.7% in March, its biggest drop in six months. Although sales per shopper rose by 2.2%, it wasn’t enough to offset the drop in foot traffic: sales at physical stores fell by 7.8%.

Department, chain and discount stores suffered an almost 6 percent decline, to $13.3 billion, while sales at apparel specialty stores dropped by 1.2% on a smoothed annual basis, to $21.1 billion.

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For the combined department and specialty sector, a barometer of overall apparel, sales fell by a little more than 1 percent on a 12-month smoothed basis. The inventory-to-sales ratio rose slightly from last month. 

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Retailers selling products for the home fared better. Total sales of furniture and other home stores together racked up a more than 8.7% increase as older Millennials begin to move out and set up homes, a trend that has only just begun, according to industry experts, who predict continued strength in both the rental and purchase housing market.

Another bright spot in the retail market was health and personal product stores, where sales increased by 6.9%, helped by strategy implemented by many drug store chains to expand their product offering to become more and more like convenience stores, selling everything from groceries to apparel.

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