By  on March 28, 2012

Men’s wear led, women’s wear lagged and specialty stores stretched their already commanding market share lead as apparel sales grew 3.8 percent to nearly $199 billion, in 2011.

According to The NPD Group Inc.’s tabulation of last year’s results, women’s wear sales increased 3.1 percent to $110.16 billion, nearly twice the $55.72 billion registered in men’s after that category’s 4.2 percent gain in 2011. Neither category grew as rapidly as children’s wear, which expanded 5.8 percent to $32.82 billion.

Specialty stores continued to dominate apparel buying last year, with sales growing 6.5 percent to $65.51 billion and overall share hitting 33 percent from 32.2 percent in 2010. Department stores and national chains grew at similar rates, up 2.9 percent and 3 percent, respectively, to $28.32 billion and $26.38 billion, representing 14.3 percent and 13.3 percent of apparel dollar volume. Mass merchants had the smallest gain of the major retail categories, ticking up 1.4 percent to $31.13 billion.

But the strong performance of both off-price stores and especially manufacturer-owned stores, including outlets and both online and offline direct-to-consumer efforts, demonstrated the power of the “brands for less” strategy in 2011. Manufacturer-owned stores’ apparel sales hit $6.38 billion, a 14.7 point leap that qualified as the largest percentage upswing among any of the distribution channels studied by NPD’s Consumer Tracking Service. Off-price stores were up 5.6 percent to $16.34 billion.

“Value is no longer perceived as just the lowest price, as you can see from the so-so performance of the lowest-priced retailers,” said NPD chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen. “Consumers now equate value with getting good brands for less, and that favored factory outlets and monobrand stores as well as shoppers taking advantage of special offers online or with their tablets and smartphones.”

In women’s wear, no category registered growth comparable to that of dresses, which advanced 17.1 percent to $10.93 billion, with tights and sheer hosiery up 8.4 percent to $1.03 billion.

The weakest category was outerwear. A 1.5 percent increase in men’s outerwear sales, to $4.07 billion, wasn’t large enough to compensate for a 3.2 percent decline on the women’s side, to $5.69 billion, leaving the total for adult outerwear down 1.3 percent at $9.76 billion.

“That’s absolutely weather-related,” said Cohen. “I’ve never given a lot of credit, or assigned a lot of blame, to weather, but people just didn’t buy. When you have as mild a winter as we had, people don’t even need to replenish because they’re not wearing what they already have all that much.”

He attributed the overall strength of apparel sales last year to retailers’ adroitness in promoting their products, on the basis of price as well as fashion newness. He also cited “frugal fatigue” as many consumers, tired of economizing in the wake of the recession, “finally got back to building their wardrobes again.”

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