By  on April 8, 1994

NEW YORK -- Aided by strong women's apparel business, retail sales roared back in March, with many stores racking up double-digit same-store gains. Sportswear and ready-to-wear were strong, with standout items including T-shirts, knitwear, linen, dresses and denim shorts. Swimwear, shoes, accessories and cosmetics were also widely mentioned as hot sellers.

Retailers got a boost from an early Easter, which was April 3 this year versus April 11 a year ago. Comparisons were also easier because March a year ago was hurt by storms across much of the country.

Strength returned in virtually all major categories of rtw, said Allen Questrom, chairman and chief executive officer of Federated Department Stores.

Cosmetics and fragrance sales also were particularly high for Federated, along with fashion watches, handbags and hosiery.

Federated's total revenues increased 4.9 percent, to $646.1 million, and same-store sales were up 3.1 percent.

The Neiman Marcus Group posted a 6.4 percent sales increase, to $186.7 million, with a 6.1 percent comparable-store gain.

Neiman Marcus, including mail order and stores, posted increases slightly above the group comparable-store gain. Bergdorf had double-digit same-store increases while Contempo Casuals was flat.

Knitwear was especially hot at Neiman Marcus in March. Other bestsellers included private label cotton T-shirts and spun silk sweaters, as well as high-end sportswear. Linen was also a big draw.

In the career-bridge area, Emmanuel was particularly strong; Armani scarves were said to be blowing out of the stores, and swimwear was another best-selling category, especially Gottex.

"Our sales increases overall were driven by the continuing consumer interest in value-priced merchandise and the Easter switch," noted Dayton Hudson Corp.'s vice chairman, Henry T. DeNero. The company's overall sales rose 14.4 percent, to $1.8 billion, and comparable-store sales rose 8.5 percent. Hot trends at the department stores division were career shorts, knit dressing, the color white, T-shirts and denim shorts. Waistless dresses, vested dresses and flip skirts were also big sellers.

At the Mervyn's division, knit crews and V-necks, body suits and T-shirts sold well. The Limited posted a 7 percent overall same-store sales increase, with comparable-store gains in the low teens at Victoria's Secret stores and Limited Stores. Victoria's Secret's recently introduced swimwear catalog had strong initial response, running ahead of plan.The Limited's new businesses continued to pull ahead with same-store jumps in the low 50s at both Limited Too, and Bath & Body Works. Total company sales increased 12 percent, to $600 million. The Sears Roebuck Merchandise Group and J.C. Penney also said apparel helped fuel robust sales gains. At Sears, top apparel items were children's, juniors and dresses. Cosmetics also did well, the company said. Domestic sales at the Merchandise Group rose 18.9 percent to $2.3 billion.

Penney's cited value as a draw, noting that women's sportswear and dresses, along with children's apparel, performed well. Sales rose 15.6 percent, to $1.8 billion, and catalog sales increased 22.9 percent. Wal-Mart Stores reported a 15 percent same-store sales increase, with total sales jumping 31 percent, to $6.2 billion.

Kmart Corp.'s sales rose 8.9 percent, to $3.01 billion, with a 4.5 percent same-store gain.

Other companies with same-store gains included: The Gap, 16 percent; Talbots, 25.8 percent; Ann Taylor Stores, 13.6 percent; Dillard Department Stores, 16 percent, and May Department Stores, 14.8 percent.

Despite the strong March showings, analysts say April may be lackluster.

"Many stores are planning flat to 2 percent ahead for April," said Walter Loeb of Loeb Associates, noting that with Easter over, and the approaching April 15 deadline for filing tax returns, people may not be as much in the mood to shop.

"April will be a very promotional month to overcome a lack of enthusiasm," Loeb said.

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