Retailers looking forward to back-to-school season

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After modest sales gains in June, retailers are gearing up for the back-to-school season, according to the National Retail Federation.

Retail sales - excluding automobiles, gas stations and restaurants - rose 3.4 percent unadjusted over last year and decreased 0.5 percent seasonally adjusted from May.

The figures, released Friday by the US Commerce Department, show total retail sales, which include non-general merchandise categories such as autos, gasoline stations and restaurants, decreased 0.9 percent seasonally adjusted from last month and increased 3.2 percent unadjusted year over year.

"It's really not a surprise," said Scott Silverman, executive director of Washington-based Shop.org, the National Retail Federation's association for online retailers. "We are between the Easter and back-to-school period where things are typically slow for retailers, not to mention the fact that we are still seeing some slowdown in the economy."

Health and personal care stores did fare well with consumer spending, with sales increasing 1.2 percent seasonally adjusted over May and 6.7 percent unadjusted from last June. General-merchandise stores were another site for activity, with sales increasing 0.3 percent seasonally adjusted month-to-month and 5.3 percent unadjusted year over year.

Clothing and clothing-accessories stores sales decreased 1.4 percent seasonally adjusted month to month and increased 4.9 percent unadjusted year over year. The electronics and appliances category also posted mixed results with sales decreasing 1.4 percent from May and increasing a modest 1.4 percent unadjusted from last June.

The weak housing market hit furniture and home-furnishings stores and building-material and garden-equipment dealers hardest. Sales decreased 3 percent from last month and 1.4 percent unadjusted year over year at furniture and home-furnishings stores and decreased 2.3 percent seasonally adjusted from last month and 2.6 percent unadjusted over last June at building-materials stores.

"The biggest change we've seen in the back-to-school market is the growth in the consumer-electronics category, not just in colleges but in elementary schools and high schools," Silverman said. "We've even seen iPods on the back-to-school shopping list. This higher-end merchandise is helping drive up the average dollars spent by consumers during this shopping season."

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