By  on January 22, 2008

This winter's weather has been erratic at best, but outerwear makers and retailers are playing up fashion and lighter-weight options to try to outsmart Mother Nature.

Weatherproof Garment Co. president and chief executive officer Freddie Stollmack said mild temperatures in September and October "really hurt" outerwear sales, but chillier temperatures kicked in in November and December. The company bought weather insurance as a safeguard — more commonly used by ski resorts and snowmobile makers — but Stollmack said he was "delighted" not to have to cash in on the policy.

Having an average retail price of $100 and designing more transitional pieces have appealed to shoppers, he said. The layering trend, which is especially popular among younger shoppers, has also helped business. Weatherproof has made a concerted effort to design more fashion-oriented pieces. That gels with its strategy of catering to women between the ages of 30 and 50 instead of 40 and up.

At L.L. Bean, holiday sales in all channels happened a bit later than expected, but were strong, and postholiday sales continue to be robust, according to a company spokeswoman.

In addition, the three new stores and the hunting and fishing store L.L. Bean opened last year have been well-received, she said.

This season's unusual weather — "record highs, record lows and record amounts of snowfall" — has kept the Freeport, Maine-based retailer, which also has a sizable mail-order and online business, on its toes. Offering free shipping from the beginning of September through Dec. 21, an incentive that is usually only offered to L.L. Bean credit card customers, helped drum up sales. Shoppers did not have any minimum purchase restrictions to qualify. In addition, last month the company offered $10 coupons for orders of $50 or more, which gave holiday sales a boost and some shoppers are using the coupons to make purchases this month, the spokeswoman said.

Outerwear sales at Searle have not been lagging due primarily to the fact the retailer is known to carry a healthy assortment at this time of year, said Rick Weinstein, director of sales and marketing. The fact that most department stores are getting ready for the end of the outerwear season only helps, he said.Perhaps anticipating last weekend's expected chill, shoppers on Thursday bought 10 Searle shearling coats, and Saks Fifth Avenue sold three more. Weinstein said, "They're buying the warmest of the warm."

Last winter, January and February were key months for outerwear, since that is when more seasonal temperatures kicked in, he said. "Those numbers may be tough to beat, but we're definitely poised to if the weather holds on."

Jeanette Nostra, president of G-III, noted there are more factors at play than the weather. The escalating price of fuel and the fallout from adjustable-rate mortgages are making consumers more cautious about incidental purchases, she said. "It's so hard to quantify. We have had quite a mixed response [from retailers]. There are areas of the country that are doing great like California and the Southeast, and other areas are struggling," she said. Despite this winter's erratic weather patterns, G-III's wool coat business was the strongest category for fourth-quarter sales. Kenneth Cole, Jones New York and Calvin Klein are among the women's lines produced by the company.

"What's happened is we're in the 'want' business, not in the 'need' business. If we create fashion they want, they buy it whether they need it or not," Nostra said.

At Macy's, senior vice president of coats Joyce Henry said wool was the strongest classification due to newness in styling and silhouette.

"Trenches, swing coats and novelty fabrications were among the best performers. Attention to detail and novelty trim coupled with alternative sleeve lengths offered the customer a reason to buy," she said.

Rainforest played up the fashion component in its first women's collection this fall. Kathy McCloskey, vice president of the women's division, said the collection is available in 100 specialty stores, and the company should generate close to $1 million in wholesale volume this year.

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