By  on March 7, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Apparel retail sales were all over the map in January and February, while overall sales remained flat across all districts, the Federal Reserve's Beige Book report revealed Wednesday.

The only exceptions were the Philadelphia, Atlanta and Kansas City districts, which reported that retail sales were higher in early 2002 against the year-ago period. By most accounts, retailers expect to hold the line with spring sales and most predicted an uptick in business thanks to tighter inventory controls.

In the New York district, retailers reported sales were "constrained by lean post-holiday inventories," but most noted that business was even or above plan in February, the Fed's report said. Comparable-store sales in recent weeks remained flat from the year-ago period, with brisk sales of home goods offsetting "sluggish" apparel sales, particularly men's apparel, according to the report.

Overall, discounters fared better than department stores, while small shops said business was flat, but better than expected.

In Minneapolis, a major department store said same-store sales in January were up 6 percent against January 2001, while a mall manager estimated that sales increased 4 percent in February. In contrast, in the twin city of St. Paul, a mall manager noted slightly less traffic in January and February. A Minnesota-based leather products retailer said that same-store sales plunged 17 percent in January against year-ago levels.

Retailers in the Philadelphia district reported "modestly rising" sales in February, although unusually warm weather forced stores to discount heavily on winter merchandise, the Fed said.

Stores said they have been conservative in their spring buys and do not expect significant markdowns on spring goods. Sales growth was noted across all lines of unseasonable merchandise, with the strongest growth in jewelry and electronics.

On average, Philadelphia area retailers projected sales for the year to increase by 5 percent on a comp-sales basis.

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