BEIGE BOOK SEES BRIGHT APPAREL ACTION

Byline: Jennifer Owens

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve released some good news Wednesday: Apparel demand remained strong across most districts during late summer, according to its latest survey tracking business conditions around the country.
The story was pretty much the same from region to region: growing sales, steady prices and healthy inventories. The survey, known as the beige book, is done every six weeks.
In New York, most major retailers said sales stayed slightly above plan in August after running well above expectations in July. Compared to a year ago, same-store sales gains for August registered as high as 9 percent. Retailers said women’s apparel remained the strongest category.
New York-area inventories also held to satisfactory levels in most cases, the report added; one retailer said stocks were “a bit thin.” Merchandise costs were said to be essentially flat, although prices have increased slightly.
In Boston, most retailers saw steady sales growth during the quarter. Apparel remains a strong area — along with toys, home furnishings, building materials, and office and graphic reproduction supplies. Merchants reported sales growth ranging from 10 to 15 percent.
Retail competition continues to keep Boston-area prices low. In some cases — such as footwear, appliances and discount retailing — prices declined during the survey period. Most retailers said, though, that profit margins held steady or even increased slightly. According to the report, such increases were due to better inventory control, automation and streamlined purchasing.
Philadelphia retailers also reported increased August sales, with same-store sales averaging just over 3 percent against a year ago. Total sales were helped by new store openings by major retailers, and most apparel stores saw healthy gains over a year ago. Footwear sales, however, were slower than expected.
“In general, store executives said they entered the back-to-school shopping period with appropriate product mixes and attractive prices and they did not have to make unplanned price markdowns,” the report stated.
In Dallas, retailers said sales picked up and were stronger than expected during the six-week period ending in early September. “Some retailers said that their markdowns were not as large as at this time last year, raising final selling prices,” the report stated. “Retailers were optimistic for the remainder of the year and, as one retailer added, the outlook is ‘optimistic, realistically so, not just wishfully so.”‘
Sales grew “at a modest clip” in the San Francisco district, with particular strength reported in Southern California and Arizona. The district’s apparel sales were above last year’s levels and prices remained largely unchanged.
Cooler weather helped boost sales in Chicago, where most retailers noted strong year-over-year sales that exceeded plan. “Apparel sales continued to lead the way,” the report stated.
For Chicago-area retailers, women’s apparel sales were especially brisk, although sales of men’s and children’s apparel were also strong. According to the report, back-to-school sales generally met or exceeded expectations.
St. Louis retailers experienced similar success with back-to-school, reporting July and August sales that were 4 percent better on average than a year ago. Respondents said sportswear, athletic shoes and professional team clothing were the biggest sellers, and most were optimistic about the remaining year, particularly the holiday season.
In Minneapolis, two retailers who had been suffering financial difficulties reported double-digit sales gains in August, while three mall managers said recent consumer spending has ranged from “strong” to “phenomenal.”
Sales grew more slowly for Atlanta’s retailers, although the month’s results still exceeded year-ago levels.

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