WASHINGTON — The onset of colder weather in most of the country boosted outerwear sales in late October and early November, but overall, general merchandise sales were mixed, the Federal Reserve reported Wednesday.

Gains in general merchandise sales were reported in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Va., Kansas City and Dallas; however, the increases were "generally slight" compared with late summer and early fall, the Fed reported in The Beige Book, a survey of business executives in the Fed’s 12 districts.

Atlanta described retail sales as even with a year ago, while Chicago and Minneapolis reported weak retail sales. St. Louis and San Francisco indicated that retail sales had declined from September to early November.

Outerwear, grocery items and small home furnishings were among the few bright spots, the Fed said. Retailers also predicted a mixed holiday-sales forecast, due in part to a soft economy, downward price pressures, threat of war with Iraq and inventory concerns tied to the West Coast port shutdown.

In New York, "retail sales have picked up since the last report, but they are still below plan in most cases," the report said.

"Most of the recent improvement was attributed to apparel sales, which have reportedly picked up in recent weeks, largely due to colder weather," the Fed reported.

However, apparel sales in general were still weak, according to retailers in the region. They said increases in outerwear sales were offset by declining retail prices.

More seasonable weather helped sales of outerwear and most merchandise lines in the Philadelphia region, according to the report.

"Shoppers continue to be cost conscious, according to store executives, preferring lower-priced and store brands among basic product lines," the report said. "Stores in the region have stepped up discounting in response to this buying behavior and in order to stimulate holiday shopping."

"But they cautioned that military action or terrorism would probably keep shoppers out of the stores, at least temporarily, even during the normally busy yearend season," the Fed said.

In Atlanta, retailers noted apparel sales were slow because of unseasonably warm weather. Many also expressed concern over late merchandise orders for the holidays due to the delays caused by the West Coast port disruptions. As reported, the labor dispute has been settled."District retailers reported a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the upcoming holiday season because of geopolitical concerns and sagging consumer confidence," the report said.

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