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Retail Expert Sees Apparel Emerging From 2 Years in the ‘Doldrums’

Retail sales lost momentum last month, but some market forecasters are seeing a thaw ahead for fashion.

February department stores sales fell a seasonally adjusted 8.4 percent from January and were down 14.5 percent from a year ago, the last full month before Covid-19 lockdowns hit the market hard. Apparel and accessories specialty stores slipped 2.8 percent between February and January and were down 11.3 percent from a year earlier.

Non-store retailers saw sales fall 5.4 percent from January, but were still up 25.9 percent from a year earlier.

Overall retail and food service sales decreased 3 percent from a month earlier, worse than the 0.7 percent drop economists projected.

But there was also a sense that consumers are starting to make up for lost time, boosted by the promise of stimulus checks and hopes that vaccines will bring life back to normal. Compared with a year earlier, overall retail and food service sales were up 6.3 percent in February.

And Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, is seeing a turn.

“The apparel/fashion market appears to be turning, after two years-plus in the doldrums,” Johnson said. “The inflection started in the third week of February, and the momentum has steadily picked up since then.  This was before any impact of COVID closures, which started last March 15, with most apparel and stores closing by March 18 or 19.”

Johnson previously predicted annual apparel sales would fall 9 percent this year—on top of a 23 percent drop last year—but said he could revise that upward if the recent trend continues.