Despite trouble finding qualified workers, small-business owners are confident that economic condition will improve in coming months. Here's a look at this week's economic developments and how they may affect your business.

Owner Optimism Steady

Small-business owners maintained a positive outlook on the economy in September, even as they struggled to find qualified workers, the National Federation of Independent Business reported Tuesday.

In a survey of 674 small-business owners nationwide, 57 percent said they hired or tried to hire new workers, the Washington-based advocacy group said. Of those, 84 percent reported finding few or no qualified applicants. While 13 percent eventually hired an average of 3.7 new workers per firm, the gains were offset by 14 percent that reduced employment by roughly the same amount. In total, some 25 percent of respondents closed September with unfilled job openings, unchanged from August, the report said.

Despite hiring woes, the group's monthly small-business optimism index for September inched up by one point to 97.3, with more owners expecting higher sales and improved economic conditions in the months ahead. The index has now kept below its historic average for 17 of the past 18 months.

"Owners have seen the bottom and are expecting the economy to gradually improve," William Dunkelberg, the group's chief economist, said in a statement.

On Tuesday, Federal Reserve officials said the economic outlook was unclear, though the credit-market turmoil that prompted an interest cut last month was easing.

Import, Export Prices Up

Driven by soaring petroleum costs, U.S. import prices rose by 1 percent in September, while export prices rose by 0.3 percent, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

Import prices, which had dipped in August, were pushed up by a 5.4 percent gain in petroleum prices. Excluding petroleum, import prices decreased by 0.2 percent, led by lower prices for metals and natural gas.

The gains in export prices were led by a 4.1 percent rise in agricultural prices, the largest one-month gain this year, the report said.

Wholesale Sales Up

Sales at the nation's wholesaler outlets rose by 0.4 percent in August to $360.9 billion, a 6.8 percent increase from the same period last year, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday.

While durable goods sales were up 0.9 percent from July, nondurable goods sales declined by 0.1 percent.

Across the board, inventories rose by 0.1 percent to $399 billion in August, representing a 1.1-month supply at the current sales pace. Wholesale inventory-to-sales ratios have declined steadily for the past six years.

Gas Prices Down

Average gas prices across the nation fell by 1.8 cents last week to $2.77 per gallon, the second straight week of declines, the Energy Information Administration reported Thursday.

Despite the declines, prices were still 50.9 cents above the same period last year. Prices dropped in every region except the West Coast, where they rose by 1.2 cents to $2.934 per gallon and the highest in the country. In California, prices inched back up to $3.00 mark, rising by 2.3 cents to $2.997 per gallon.

Jobless Claims Fall

The number of new claims for unemployment benefits fell by 12,000 last week to 308,000, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

For the week ending Sept. 29, the nation's insured unemployment rate remained unchanged at 1.9 percent, with 2.521 million people filing claims.

The largest decreases in new claims last week were in Florida, New York, and Georgia, while the largest increases were in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana.