By  on January 20, 2005

WASHINGTON — Economic activity expanded from late November though early January, spurred by job growth and modest sales increases, the Federal Reserve said Wednesday in its Beige Book report.

The Fed’s 12 district banks, which gather economic anecdotes from a variety of businesses across the country, reported increases in retail sales in late December after a slow start to the month. Sales for the six-week period pointed to growth in luxury goods, electronics and jewelry. Gift cards also propelled retail sales across most districts.

Consumer spending increased in nine of the 12 districts. Retailers in Boston, Chicago and St. Louis reported strong sales of apparel, while merchants in Kansas City, Philadelphia and San Francisco posted increases in the sale of luxury goods. Retailers in Atlanta, Chicago and Kansas City reported an uptick in sales of electronics and jewelry.

Holiday retail sales were mixed in New York, but “close to plan” on balance. Chain stores and small boutiques said sales were weak in the first half of December, but picked up in the latter half of the month and “continued strong through January.”

Merchants also noted that prices were unchanged during the period against a year ago, but some executives said they anticipate a reduction in prices for apparel products this year due to the removal of global quotas on apparel and textiles, and the costs associated with that change.

Retailers in the Philadelphia district reported that price markdowns in December and early January were “roughly comparable” with discounts last year. Luxury retailers outperformed all other sectors in this region.

In Cleveland, sales at department stores were “generally weak,” according to the report, while sales at apparel specialty stores were mixed.

Merchants in the Atlanta district, which includes Florida, said holiday sales were up moderately. The region had strong sales in women’s apparel, jewelry and electronics.

“Intense competition among merchants led to widespread discounting, but most contacts noted that fourth-quarter profit margins equaled or exceeded last year’s results,” the report stated.

Apparel sales in the Chicago district rose as the weather got colder, the Fed said. Most retailers reported sales were at the “low- to midrange of their expectations.”In Boston, top sellers included clothing, shoes, flat-panel TVs and MP3 players, while renovation and lumber materials sales also increased.

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