By  on May 23, 1994

ST. LOUIS -- The news about women's apparel was not bright as two top department store firms -- Dillard Department Stores and May Department Stores Co. -- held their annual meetings last week.

On Friday, David C. Farrell, chairman and chief executive officer of May Co., said following the stockholders parley at the Cervantes Convention Center here that consumers have "pulled back" on their spending, putting a crimp in women's apparel sales in the last 30 days.

"Sportswear is not as strong as we would like to see it," Farrell said.

Overall, May Co.'s department store sales since mid-April have experienced a downturn, Farrell said, adding, "Sales are not quite as buoyant as they were in the first quarter." He cited consumer concerns about federal income tax increases and rising interest rates.

All the news was not bad. Dresses, according to Farrell, are selling better, and suits in misses and petite sizes are "the stronger parts of the business." In addition, new wrinkle-resistant products are off to a fast start in men's wear, although in women's they aren't as much of a factor, Farrell said.

As reported, May Co. sales for the first quarter were up 11.4 percent, 7.7 percent on a comparable-store basis. Earnings rose 17.1 percent.

May Co. said its five-year plan through 1998 involves spending $5 billion, with $4 billion earmarked for 110 new department stores, 1,200 Payless ShoeSource stores, 1,000 Payless Kids expansion stores, and 100 department store remodels. This year, the firm will spend $985 million for capital improvements, a record amount for May Co. Fifteen department stores will be opened, 15 expanded and 17 remodeled.

In Little Rock, Ark., on Saturday following Dillard's annual shareholder session, William Dillard Sr., chairman and ceo, described the women's apparel business at the firm as "extremely sick."

"It has to be that consumers don't like the styles or the prices. Whatever the reason, they're not buying," said Dillard, who founded the department store chain in 1938. He further noted that the soft business continues a trend noticeable in 1993, when the women's category was "not up to expectations."

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