By  on March 10, 2005

WASHINGTON — The economy moved along at a healthy pace in February, as the employment picture improved, retail sales strengthened and consumer spending picked up, the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book report revealed Wednesday.

“The economy has continued to expand at a moderate pace since the last report,” the Fed said.

The Fed’s 12 district banks, which gather economic anecdotes from a variety of businesses across the country, reported better performances in retail sales in several regions of the country in February.

Consumer spending picked up in Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Kansas City and Dallas, led by strong apparel sales. Retailers in districts such as Richmond, San Francisco, Cleveland, St. Louis and Minneapolis noted sales remained even during the period and reported weak sales of electronics and big-ticket items.

Retailers in the New York district said sales were mixed, but “close to plan” in February.

“A boost in apparel sales from New York’s one-week holiday from sales tax on moderately priced apparel (Jan.31-Feb. 6) and a strong pickup in sales to tourists appear to have been offset by unseasonably cold and wet weather,” the Fed said.

Several retailers in New York said apparel sales were “brisk” in February, while sales of home furnishings and equipment were “sluggish.”

Tourism in Manhattan has been “exceptionally strong” in early January 2005, the Fed said, noting the hotel occupancy rate was up 3 percent over a year ago, while total revenues in Manhattan were up about 15 percent.

Gift cards still gave a boost to sales at stores in the Atlanta district, and merchants noted sales of women’s apparel and home-related goods “were particularly strong.”

In the Kansas City district, apparel sales were “especially strong” due to post-holiday discounting, while retail executives in Philadelphia said most winter merchandise had been cleared through discounting and spring apparel was selling well.

A department store executive in Washington, D.C., said customers were “increasingly looking for clearance deals,” while a manager at a department store in central North Carolina described sales as “relatively flat.”

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