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Retail Apparel Prices Fell 2 Percent in March as Pandemic Disruption Swept the Nation

As the coronavirus pandemic gripped the country in March, causing sweeping store closing and massive disruption in consumer goods purchasing, retail apparel prices fell a seasonally adjusted 2 percent in the month, according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Women’s apparel led the decline, as prices dropped 3.1 percent for the month compared to February. Every category saw prices fall, with a 5.7 percent decline in dresses; 2.5 percent decreases in suits and separates, as well as the underwear, nightwear, swimwear and accessories group; and a 1.1 percent falloff in outerwear.

Prices were flat in men’s wear, with declines of 0.8 percent in suits, sport coats and outerwear, and 0.7 percent in the underwear, nightwear, swimwear and accessories group balanced out by increases of 1 percent in shirts and sweaters and 0.5 percent in pants and shorts.

Following a similar gender pattern, boys’ apparel prices rose 3.2 percent in March, while girl’s clothing cost 2.4 percent less. Prices for infants’ and toddlers’ apparel dropped 4.3 percent in the month.

Footwear prices were also depressed in March, falling an overall 2.8 percent. Boys’ and girls’ prices fell 3.6 percent, while men’s prices were down 2.2 percent and women’s were off 1.9 percent.

Besides low demand for apparel, as consumers stocked up on food and healthcare in state-ordered stay-at-home mandates, lower fiber costs also helped to keep prices depressed. U.S. spot cotton prices averaged 45.13 cents per pound for the week ended April 2, down from 47.81 cents the prior week and from 71.81 cents a year earlier.

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BLS noted that the CPI program suspended data collection by personal visits on March 16. When possible, data normally collected by personal visit was collected either online or by phone.

Additionally, data collection in March was affected by the temporary closing or limited operations of certain types of establishments. These factors resulted in an increase in the number of prices being considered temporarily unavailable and imputed. While the CPI program attempted to collect as much data as possible, many indexes are based on smaller amounts of collected prices than usual.

The overall CPI declined 0.4 percent in March on a seasonally adjusted basis, the largest monthly decline since January 2015, BLS reported. A sharp decline in the gasoline index was a major cause of the monthly decrease, with declines in the indexes for airline fares, lodging away from home, and apparel also contributing.

The so-called core index, minus the volatile food and energy sectors, fell 0.1 percent in March, its first monthly decline since January 2010. Along with the indexes for airline fares, lodging away from home and apparel, the index for new vehicles declined in March.

The energy index was down 5.8 percent in March, its largest monthly decrease since January 2015. The gasoline index fell for the third month in a row, dropping 10.5 percent, with gasoline prices sinking 7.4 percent.