By  on March 9, 2007

WASHINGTON — An extended period of cold weather hampered apparel sales and retail sales in Boston, Cleveland and Kansas City, according to the Beige Book, the Federal Reserve Board's snapshot of U.S. economic activity.

However, gift cards, along with cold temperatures, buoyed sales of winter apparel in New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia, said the report, based on surveys of the Fed's 12 regional banks and information collected from Jan. 9 through Feb. 26.

While most districts reported modest expansion in overall economic activity, several districts noted a slowdown in the pace of growth. The Fed's report said most of the districts reported weak housing markets, although there were some signs of "stabilization."

The Fed will use the information from the Beige Book in discussions at its next meeting March 21 to 22. Many economists expect the central bank to decide to hold interest rates steady.

In New York, retailers cited "extensive gift card use in January, and noted that the belated arrival of cold weather late in the month buoyed sales of winter apparel," the report said. Sales of home furnishings and equipment remained "sluggish."

Clearance sales in mid-February and cold weather were also contributing factors to a boost in winter apparel sales in Philadelphia, the report said.

While some areas of the country benefited from the cold temperatures, others did not fare as well.

"Consumer spending was limited in late January and early February partly due to poor weather conditions across" the Kansas City district, the report said.

"Extreme cold, heavy snowfall and icy conditions limited store traffic, and retail malls reported slower sales compared to last year."

Although weather was a factor in many districts, a slowdown in big-ticket purchases also hurt overall sales in some areas.

"Retail sales weakened since our last report, pulled down in part by declining big-ticket sales," in the Richmond, Va., district, the report said. Apparel stores in Charleston, W. Va., and Columbia, Md., said the "pace of clothing sales slowed."

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