Sales growth for the nation's retailers sharply decelerated in March, largely because the Easter holiday, typically a catalyst for a surge in sales, falls later this year than it did last year.

Same-store sales at 71 of the nation's largest retailers were up just 1.7% year-over-year in March, the slowest pace of growth in nearly four years. Total retail sales were up 6%, according to a

Bank of Tokyo - Mitsubishi

tally of sales.

Analysts say that the dip in the March sales growth was almost entirely due to the later Easter holiday, which falls on April 23 this year, compared to April 4 last year. Easter typically spurs buying as consumers flock to the stores for early spring promotions, end-of-winter clearance sales and holiday-related purchases.

The slower sales growth did little to convince economists that U.S. consumers, a major driver of the record 109-month economic expansion, are curbing their spending habits.

In an attempt to curb relentless consumer demand, the

Federal Reserve

has raised interest rates five times over the past ten months. Lower rates typically make it harder for consumers to borrow and spend. But given the riches that consumers have racked up through rising salaries, low unemployment and rising stock values, there has been little letup in spending.

"It remains a very healthy retail environment, and the trends to keep it going remain strong," said BTM economist Michael Niemira. He estimates that the absence of Easter's influence in March accounted for roughly three percentage points of the drop. Last year, he said, Easter spending was responsible for driving retail sales up 10%.

Since clothes are often a hot item around Easter, apparel retailers had the most sluggish results in March. Department store

Dillards

(DDS) - Get Report

saw its same-store sales decrease by 10% compared to March 1999 and same-store sales at the

Gap

(GPS) - Get Report

fell by 11%.

Other apparel retailers were able to eke out slight sales gains. Sales at

The Limited

(LTD)

increased 4%,

TJX Companies

(TJX) - Get Report

, owner of T.J. Maxx stores, increased 1% and same-store sales at

Ross Stores

(ROST) - Get Report

rose 3%.

Some of the larger general merchandise stores fared slightly better. Number one retailer

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

saw its sales rise 3.6% after rising 6.1% in February, while sales at number two

Sears, Roebuck & Co.

(S) - Get Report

rose 3.8% compared to 3.1% in February.

Still some general merchandise retailers were pinched by the late Easter this year. Same-store sales for retailers owned by

Target Corp.

(TGT) - Get Report

fell 3.6%, while

Kmart

(KM)

same-store sales fell 1.2%.

JCPenny

(JCP) - Get Report

also saw same-store sales stumble a staggering 9.5% versus last March.