By  on September 10, 2009

WASHINGTON — Back-to-school purchases helped improve sales for retailers in some parts of the country in late July and August, but most still reported weak volume, according to the Federal Reserve Board’s Beige Book released Wednesday.

Based on anecdotal reports from retailers, economic activity in the U.S. “firmed” toward the end of summer. Overall, the majority of the 12 districts in the Fed report said consumer spending was still soft, but stabilizing.

Boston, Kansas City and Philadelphia attributed marginal improvements in sales to b-t-s purchases. Some retailers noted shoppers were forgoing other purchases in order to buy school items.

Retailers in Boston said consumers “still seem to be cautious in their spending and focused on getting the best value for their dollar.” Observers in the region said value-driven shopping will be the “new norm” and recovery could be long and slow.

Philadelphia-based stores said the b-t-s shopping in August drove a small increase in sales, with youth apparel described as “solid or strong.” Retailers cautioned that in Philadelphia, “consumers’ purchases have been value-driven and focused on immediate needs. Several retailers said consumers appeared to be cutting back on purchases of other goods to pay for back-to-school items.”

B-t-s apparel helped stabilize retail sales for Kansas City stores in August. Merchants in St. Louis said apparel and big-ticket items were selling more slowly, and less-expensive items such as lawn and garden products were stronger sellers.

Sales of discretionary purchases and big-ticket items continued to be weak in most districts, with Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco all reporting shoppers were shying away from those purchases in favor of essentials.

Reports from San Francisco indicated “consumers continued to restrain their spending on large discretionary purchases and luxuries, resulting in weak demand at department stores and specialty retail outlets. Conversely, retailers who focus more on necessities, such as discount chains and grocers, saw further sales gains.”

New York stores said consumer spending was close to expectations for July and August, but was significantly lower than a year ago. New York retailers said they were planning for holiday sales to drop by more than 5 percent year-over-year. Overall sales picked up in June and July, but were especially dismal in August, according to retailers in the district.

In New York on Wednesday, the S&P Retail Index picked up 2.39 points, or 0.6 percent, to 373.31, its fourth straight day of gains. The major indices were up as well, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average ahead 49.88 points, or 0.5 percent, to 9,547.22 and the S&P 500 up 7.98 points, or 0.8 percent, to 1,033.37. The Nasdaq Composite logged a healthier advance, rising 22.62 points, or 1.1 percent, to 2,060.39.

Among stocks tracked by WWD, the biggest gain was registered by Liz Claiborne Inc., which saw its shares pick up 10.4 percent to $4.55 after chief executive officer William McComb reassured investors at a Goldman Sachs conference that the company’s liquidity position was solid despite speculation otherwise following its hiring of turnaround specialists Alvarez & Marsal for what has been described as a short-term project to review working capital and cost-reduction plans.

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