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Fed: Consumers Still Active

Even with higher fuel prices and two devastating hurricanes, retail sales picked up and general economic activity quickened across most of the U.S. in September and early October.

WASHINGTON — Even with higher fuel prices and two devastating hurricanes, retail sales picked up and general economic activity quickened across most of the U.S. in September and early October.

That conclusion from the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book, the survey that collects six weeks of anecdotal evidence from the Fed’s 12 districts, supports other government reports showing consumer resilience.

Still, economists and retailers are concerned that the rising cost of heating fuel in the winter months could cut into family budgets.

General merchandise sales rose moderately in most of the Fed’s districts, including Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Dallas. Excluding areas on the Gulf Coast where hurricane damage prompted store closures, the Atlanta district also saw sales increases.

However, retail sales in the New York and St. Louis regions failed to meet plans, and sales in San Francisco weakened, the Fed said.

Last week, the Commerce Department reported that total retail and food sales advanced a seasonally adjusted 0.2 percent in September and were up 6.5 percent compared with a year earlier. Sales at apparel and accessories stores couldn’t keep up and retreated 0.2 percent to $16.67 billion, but were still 5.7 percent ahead of a year earlier.

In Boston, one apparel retailer said third-quarter comparable-store sales were more than 4 percent higher, while another said comps were either up marginally or flat for August and September, according to the Fed report.

“Both respondents emphasized the negative impact skyrocketing fuel prices are having and threaten to continue to have on consumer spending,” the survey said. “A contact in the surplus merchandise market echoed this sentiment and remarked that sales were OK until gasoline hit the $2 mark, with ‘the bottom falling out’ once prices surpassed $2.50.”

Even with “sluggish” sales in the New York district, the report said inventories were in line and prices were stable outside of gasoline. In the Philadelphia district, slow apparel sales left some stores with excess inventory, prompting price cuts and additional promotions.

The Atlanta district reported “a significant impact on activity” because of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with severe disruptions in coastal Louisiana and Mississippi.

“Most retailers directly in the storms’ paths remained closed because of damage, whereas many others were unable to open for some time because of the lack of power, shortages of workers and transportation delays,” the report said.