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Fed: Weather, Fuel Cloud Retail Picture

WASHINGTON — High fuel prices and unseasonable weather spurred mixed retail activity from mid-April through May, according to anecdotal evidence collected by the Federal Reserve's Beige Book report released Wednesday.<BR><BR>The report, which...

WASHINGTON — High fuel prices and unseasonable weather spurred mixed retail activity from mid-April through May, according to anecdotal evidence collected by the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book report released Wednesday.

The report, which offers a glimpse of conditions across the Fed’s 12 districts, found consumer spending picked up in Kansas City and San Francisco, among other districts, but was uneven in Atlanta and Cleveland, and down in Philadelphia.

Similar results were seen in same-store sales for May, released by the retailers themselves earlier this month. Thirty-four of the 49 chains tracked by WWD posted rises in same-stores sales for the month, with specialty stores generally outpacing the department stores and discounters.

In the New York district, retailers said cool weather slowed sales of summer clothing and swimwear. Cosmetics, jewelry and accessories sales, however, were strong.

In the Minneapolis district, a North Dakota mall manager said April sales grew more than 7 percent from a year ago. A Minneapolis area mall manager, however, described traffic as quiet.

The Beige Book found broad improvement in labor conditions and some shortages of skilled workers in fields such as construction in Atlanta and San Francisco or energy workers in Dallas.

Tourism across the country remained positive, with New York showing exceptional strength. Manhattan’s hotel occupancy rate was more than 2 percentage points higher in April than a year earlier and average room rates jumped 17 percent.

Improvement in the labor market in most areas of the country likely supported the increased travel and helped prop up sales at stores. In all, the economy added 78,000 jobs in May and 274,000 in April.

Most of the country reported that manufacturing activity expanded in May and late April, though concerns over higher fuel costs remained, said the report. Some districts said manufacturers had to assume rising raw material costs due to long-term contracts and pressures from imports.

Despite an overall expansion in manufacturing activity, textiles and apparel producers have generally continued to wane as cheaper goods from overseas grab a larger share of the U.S. market and plants close.