WASHINGTON — Fears of a war with Iraq and terrorism boosted sales of duct tape, plastic and other hardware goods, but apparel sales sank along with weak consumer spending and flagging confidence in January and February.

Economic activity was "subdued" and retail sales were flat throughout much of the country in January, although Boston, Chicago and Kansas City reported some signs of improvement during February, according to the Federal Reserve Board’s Beige Book, a survey of business executives in 12 designated districts, released Wednesday.

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