Ominous Sign: Sales Of Women's Clothing Lagging

From high-end dresses to bargain coats, spending on women's apparel dropped nearly 6% during the first half of the Christmas season, compared with the same period last year, according to MasterCard Advisors, a division of the credit-card company. The slowdown is worrisome because women make the vast majority of purchases in retailing, and their spending is a closely watched barometer of the industry's health.

Analysts blamed a rough economy, which has discouraged women--and mothers, in particular--from splurging on clothing for themselves and a lack of compelling fashions this winter.

MasterCard found that online spending had surged about 30% percent, well above the average growth this year. "If there is a star this year, it's e-commerce," says Michael McNamara, vice president for research and analysis at MasterCard Advisors. Spending on luxury items is up 10.8%, which "isn't bad at all," he says.

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