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Beige Book Notes Some Retail Improvement

Stocks fall Wednesday on weak Treasury auction and dip in crude oil inventories.

WASHINGTON — Retailers in cities across the U.S. reported the economic clouds of the last few months could be parting, but consumers remained focused on necessary purchases instead of luxuries, according to the Federal Reserve Board’s Beige Book released Wednesday.

Anecdotal accounts in the report point to a leveling out of sales pressures and in some regions slight improvements, as the economic downturn appeared to moderate. Overall, the 12 districts included in the Beige Book said economic conditions were still difficult, but five districts said the downward trend was slowing and several said their outlook had improved.

Retailers in New York, Minneapolis and Dallas reported slightly improved sales in recent weeks. Reports from Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cleveland, Kansas City and Atlanta were flat or mixed. Several districts said discount retailers continued to perform better than other stores.

Sales of luxury goods and discretionary purchases were sluggish in most districts. Retailers in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco and Kansas City reported consumers were favoring less expensive or discount lines and stores over premium brands and luxury products.

In Philadelphia, merchants gave conflicting reports, but generally indicated they do not expect sales to improve during the rest of 2009. The chief executive officer of a large chain store said, “We are a value proposition, so we are benefitting from uncertain economic times.” Another executive at a high-fashion chain said, “Luxury is in the tank.”

Sales in Kansas City remained steady, according to retailers in the district, but had not yet recovered compared to last year. Sales of basic apparel items increased, but demand for luxury goods and home furnishings was still lackluster, according to retailers in the area. Mall traffic was also slower.

Department stores and specialty retailers in San Francisco reported weak overall demand. One retailer in New York said price discounting had reared its head again recently.

In contrast, most retailers in Boston reported a modest sales increase over the same period a year earlier despite continued pressures on other sectors in the district.

The uneven Beige Book results, coupled with a weak Treasury bill auction and a government report of an unexpected drop in crude oil inventories, contributed to a down day for retail stocks and the market in general Wednesday. After two days of small advances, the S&P Retail Index fell 3.10 points, or 0.9 percent, to 335.68, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined 0.3 percent to 8,739.02 and the S&P 500 was off 0.4 percent to 939.15.