THE FED SAID: Economic expansion maintained a "moderate or steady" pace across much of the country in January and early February, according to the Federal Reserve's Beige Book report on economic conditions released Wednesday. Retailers in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas and Richmond, Va., reported that warmer than usual weather and holiday gift cards gave their businesses a shot in the arm in January, but sales softened in early February. "Virtually all [New York] retail contacts note that higher-end merchandise has generally sold better than lower-priced categories," the Fed report said. Consumers in the Chicago area increased their spending modestly, and one retailer said shoppers with gift cards often spent more than the value of the card. In the St. Louis region, about 59 percent of the retailers surveyed reported increased sales. "Winter seasonal items, home decor, jewelry and staple foods were all strong sellers, while women's clothing and winter clothing were moving more slowly," the report said.

LE CHATEAU IN PLAY: Montreal-based Le Château, which has 180 stores in Canada and five in the New York area, said Wednesday that it is considering an outright sale, among several alternatives, and has hired Genuity Capital Markets of Toronto to review its options. Chief executive officer Hershel Segalm, who founded the firm in 1959, said: "Given our strong financial situation and potential for growth ... our board believes it is appropriate at this time to undertake a full review of our strategic and financial options before finalizing our growth plans for the next several years." Segal, 75, owns 41 percent of Le Château, down from 58 percent 18 months ago, although he still controls 68 percent of the voting shares. For the recent nine months, earnings increased 25 percent to $5.3 million on sales that were up 12 percent to $60.2 million. Le Château might fetch as much as $360 million, said analyst Neil Linsdell of Versant Partners.

WAL-MART DEAL: Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said Wednesday it has taken a controlling interest in Central American Retail Holding Co. and has renamed the 375-unit chain Wal-Mart Central America. "This additional investment demonstrates our confidence ... in the future of this business in Central America," said Mike Duke, vice chairman of Wal-Mart International. Wal-Mart has been seeking a majority share since it purchased a 33 percent stake in CARHCO from Dutch conglomerate Royal Ahold NV in September. The Bentonville, Ark., company did not disclose how much it spent to boost its stake to 51 percent. CARHCO, which had revenues of about $2.2 billion in 2005, operates grocery and general merchandise stores in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

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