By  on September 13, 1994

NEW YORK -- Mass merchandisers are becoming important distribution channels for outerwear manufacturers who want to reduce their dependence on the increasingly consolidated department store market.

In a category often dependent on weather, several manufacturers said their mass business can act as a cushion against a difficult department store season.

While the importance of outerwear varies widely among the mass chains, some, including Sears, Roebuck Co. and discounters such as Bradlees and Kmart, are paying more attention to the category. They are updating offerings and looking for more fashion and quality in an attempt to gain market share from department stores.

At Sears, Lana Cain, divisional vice president of outerwear, juniors, dresses and maternity, said that by 1999, the company plans to increase the floor space in its outerwear departments by 10 percent. Major renovations in outerwear departments are slated for 140 of the company's 799 stores over the next five years.

Of the 50 brands offered in Sears stores, Amerex, Lou Levy, Alorna and New England Macintosh are top sellers. Sporty looks and leather goods are boosting outerwear sales, Cain said. Key items include a reversible fleece jacket, a leather bomber and a reversible denim jacket with detachable vest and hood.

The company promotes some of its fashion outerwear in its institutional "Softer Side of Sears" television ad campaign, she said. But Sears' annual six-week preseason sale -- from late July through early September with 25 percent markdowns -- is the big generator of direct business, Cain said. Additional promotions held throughout the year include an after-Christmas sale with discounts up to 50 percent, she said.

"Active looks are the number-one growth area for coats, and leather is number two," Cain said. "We expect to maintain the wool business, and rainwear is pretty flat."

In the past four years, outerwear has become a strong performer at Bradlees, based in Braintree, Mass. Offerings have increased, and private label decreased. Most of the chain's 126 stores devote 4,000 square feet to outerwear during the fall season, according to Patty Gallagher, outerwear buyer.

Roughly 30 percent of the stores' merchandise is private label -- compared with more than 50 percent in 1990 -- Gallagher said. Bradlees' outerwear offerings have tripled since 1990, said Gallagher, noting Amerex, Fleet Street and Herman Kay are top performers. Retail prices range from $17 to $150, with a $30 polyester printed polar fleece jacket selling well for early fall and a $150 long leather coat expected to be strong later in the season.

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