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Clothing is a relative bargain, but not for much longer

Carlos Turner, 20, left, shops with his stepfather, William Walker, 34, at PantsTowne in Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg on Monday afternoon. Clothing prices haven’t changed much in a decade, but that’s about to change.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Carlos Turner, 20, left, shops with his stepfather, William Walker, 34, at PantsTowne in Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg on Monday afternoon. Clothing prices haven’t changed much in a decade, but that’s about to change.

I paid $32 for a pair of Levi's jeans at PantsTowne last month, just about what the same pants cost at the same Tyrone Square Mall store 10 years ago.

Most shoppers won't believe it (at least that's been the case with many hard-core shoppers I've mentioned this to). But while food and gas prices today are soaring, apparel prices essentially have not budged for a decade.

The exception is luxury goods, where designers' whole idea is to jack up prices and coax fashionistas to trade up.

"Apparel overall is a segment of the economy where prices have been flat or down for years," said Steve Rondone, economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Credit cheap labor in China and frugal shoppers who have been unwilling or unable to pay more for clothing, accessories and shoes. Plus, more people are buying clothes at discount stores such as Costco, Wal-Mart and Forever 21.

More than half of all apparel sells at a discount. That's reflected in spades in the bureau's apparel price index, which found that prices paid by shoppers have actually declined about 10 percent since 1998. Women's apparel has not been selling this cheaply since 1986. Women's shoes had been selling at a five-year low until May.

None of that is adjusted for inflation. But if you do, apparel prices have not kept up. If you add in the 32 percent compounded inflation rate since 1998, suggested retail for the average Brooks Brothers suit would be $798 today rather than the actual $598; today's $46 asking price for Levi's 501 jeans would be $66; and the $21.50 price of a three-pack of Calvin Klein men's briefs would be $25, according to a New York Times price comparison.

The bargain party's about over, however. Clothing, handbag and shoe prices are starting to edge up, a trend that will "exacerbate" in 2009 as much as 10 percent for goods such as shoes, says Deborah Weinswig, Citigroup's top retail analyst.

Why? The dollar is getting weaker. The developing world where most clothing is made is swallowing higher oil prices, too. In China, factories are grappling with higher inflation of 10 percent or more, shrinking tax rebates for exports and, thanks to tighter environmental and worker rights rules, paying higher production costs. This year 1,000 Chinese shoe factories closed, Weinswig said.

Back in the States, retailers who are now making their apparel buys for Christmas are scrambling feverishly to deal with higher prices. Some are thinning inventory or staffing while others shrink profit margins. Longer term, their business is shifting to suppliers in other Asian countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Pakistan, and back to the Caribbean and Mexico.

Meantime, get ready to dig deeper.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Who makes the clothes you wear?

Store Percent of goods from China
Target 50
Macy's 40
JCPenney 35
Kohl's 30
Wal-Mart 20
Nordstrom 15
Saks Fifth Avenue 10

Source: Citigroup

Clothing is a relative bargain, but not for much longer 06/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2008 9:53am]
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