NEW YORK — Despite strong junior business in the first three quarters, women’s apparel purchases overall failed to keep up with the pace of 2001, according to the NPDFashionworld Consumer survey, a division of The NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y.

"This is one of the most challenging times in apparel," said Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPDFashionworld. "With so many upper-end consumers migrating to lower channels to shop, retailers are seeking the right route to entice consumers. They’re wrestling with value pricing to compete, or they try to go the other direction by offering unique upscale product. Those that try to be both are finding out that this is the toughest of all routes. Stores that are demonstrating sales success right now are either offering real value on fashion, or product that separates them from the other retailers.

"Women are also demonstrating the desire to shop for a staple item at a higher price, but complement the item with other items at value prices," he continued. "They’re buying the basic black skirt and paying for a good quality, nice fabric, designer brand, and then buying two or three $18 dollar blouses to complete the outfit with options."

Sales of junior apparel increased more than 9 percent in the first nine months of this year, while total spending on women’s apparel slipped about 5 percent compared with the similar period last year. Women’s apparel totaled $59.3 billion compared with $62.3 billion in 2001. Total apparel sales in the January-September period eased about 2 percentto $110.9 billion from $113.1 billion a year ago.

Each week, NPDFashionworld polls 40,000 panelists on their apparel purchases.

NPD estimates the junior business registered a 9.2 percent gain, increasing to $9.6 billion from $8.8 billion. The misses business, the largest volume market, declined by 8 percent to $26.8 billion from $29.2 billion. Purchases by petites slipped 13 percent to $5.4 billion from $6.2 billion. Plus size apparel dipped 3percent to $12.3 billion from $12.7 billion.

In units sold, women’s purchases fell 12 percent in the period, while total apparel fell 7 percent. Junior apparel units was flat for the nine months.Men’s wear fell about 1 percent and slipped 5 percent in unit volume. Purchases of men’s apparel totaled $33.4 billion, down from $33.8 billion in 2001.

Sales of girl’s apparel fell 12 percent to $4.7 billion from $5.4 billion. Purchases of boy’s clothing declined less than 2 percent to $4.9 billion. Infants and toddlers apparel experienced the greatest gain — up 25 percent to $8.5 billion from $6.8 billion in 2001. Unit sales rose by 18 percent.

Purchases of women’s apparel at national chains (Sears, J.C. Penney, Kohl’s Mervyn’s) increased by about 10 percent in the period from $7.3 billion to $8 billion. Unit sales rose about 13 percent. NPD also reports women’s sales at outlets, which were up 3 percent from $1 billion to $1.1 billion.

NPD reports department store sales of women’s apparel declined by 11 percent, from $14.1 billion to $12.6 billion.

Specialty store sales slipped 1 percent, from $15.9 billion to $15.7 billion. However, unit sales dropped by about 13 percent. Upscale apparel chains in this group showed a 3 percent gain in sales, to $6.1 billion, while unit sales dropped by 17 percent.

The NPD report reveals that mass merchants also saw sharp declines in women’s purchases in the first nine months of 2002; women’s apparel at discounters declined by about 8 percent, dropping to $10.8 billion from $11.7 billion a year earlier. Unit sales at mass merchants fell by 15 percent.

Off-price retailers also experienced soft sales of women’s clothing, with purchases off 9 percent to $5.3 billion from $5.8 billion

Direct-mail, catalog and Internet sales of women’s apparel was down 22 percent, to $3 billion from $3.8 billion.

According to the latest NPD data, national brands, private label and designer apparel all showed gains in the first nine months of 2002. National brands accounted for 34 percent of all women’s apparel purchases; private label, 36 percent, and designer brands slightly less than 5 percent of all dollar sales. In units, national brands captured 40 percent of purchases; private label, 37 percent, and designer labels, under 3 percent. NPD reported that 51 percent of all women’s apparel purchased in the first nine months of this year was sold on sale.Analysis of consumer data shows that the women’s market was driven by knit shirts, up 14 percent in dollars and 4 percent in units. Jeans sales rose 7 percent, with unit sales up more than 5 percent. Women’s dress pants also increased 5 percent in dollars, but were flat in units sold.

NPD also reported tailored clothing purchases off 18 percent in dollars and 21 percent in units, with a 17 percent decline in suit sales and a 29 percent drop in dresses and skirts. Intimate apparel showed a 13 percent dip in sales and a drop of 17 percent in units. Fleecewearrebounded strongly, jumping more than 42 percent in dollars and 34 percent in units.

Sales among women between the ages of 17 and 24 increased 1 percent in dollars. This was the only age group to show an increase for the period. Purchasing by women between the ages of 35 and 44 fell 10 percent to $9.5 billion from $10.6 billion. Consumers over 55-years old accounted for $10.2 billion in sales, off 13 percent.

In terms of income, every segment showed a decline. Households with incomes under $25,000 cut spending for women’s apparel by 22 percent. Spending by households with incomes from $25,000 to $49,999 fell 6 percent. Households with incomes from $50,000 to $74,999 slipped 2 percent. The top income group ($75,000+) also cut spending by 2 percent.

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