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Retailers Talk Holiday, Discounting and Branding at ICR

Stores give the final post-mortem on the holiday and plan to brand their way out of discounting.

Retailers gathered at the 15th annual ICR XChange investor conference in Miami Wednesday to renew their pitch to investors and pick apart the discount-heavy holiday season one last time before the fiscal year winds down.

This story first appeared in the January 17, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The industry will start reporting fourth-quarter earnings in a little more than a month, but the real news by then will be in the outlooks for 2013. PVH Corp. reaffirmed its 2012 projections ahead of its presentations at ICR. The company expects adjusted earnings per share to range from $6.37 to $6.38, up from $5.38 in 2011.

Recent fourth-quarter updates from retailers — including Kohl’s Corp., Macy’s Inc., Target Corp., Aéropostale Inc. and Ascena Retail Group Inc. — fell short of expectations as sluggish consumer spending and price cuts to move inventory took a bite out of retailers’ bottom lines.

The promotional climate has led many chains to renew their efforts to bolster their brands and keep shoppers coming back at full price.

Christine Day, chief executive officer of Lululemon Athletica Inc., said fewer than 2 percent of the brand’s units were on sale before Christmas — a percentage that no doubt has many competitors salivating.

And Robert Hanson, who is putting his mark on American Eagle Outfitters Inc. as ceo, noted, “We are increasing our turns and reducing markdowns. We’d rather chase into the future flow of fashion and sell more at regular price to maximize margin than be stuck with a lot of goods that we have to sell at a discount or in clearance.”

Many seem to have the same idea, but no one is betting discounts will go away anytime soon. Stores are trying to keep getting smarter as they weigh the potential of a blowout season against the margin impact of steep discounts.

Executives at the conference, which ends today, were also touting their speed to market, their accessories businesses and the upcoming round of inaugural balls in Washington.

Here’s what they had to say:

Christine Day, ceo, Lululemon

• “This year was a very compressed holiday season right up to the end, and we had lines that were 50 to 70 people deep, an hour wait to buy a gift card. We actually had to have mall security limit people in and out.”

• “We had less than 2 percent of our units on sale or marked down prior to holiday, and had about the same within a percent post-holiday. And so that premium pricing strategy for the long term in a marketplace that’s full of discounting is…a very strong thing for our brand.”

• “We’re doing an inaugural ball in Washington that the First Lady is coming to.…So it’s a wear your best athleticwear to an inaugural ball.”

Joseph B. Parsons, chief financial officer, Michael Kors Holdings Ltd.

• “In terms of the global luxury market, can we continue to grow along with other competitors? We think we can. The global luxury market is estimated to grow from $283 billion in 2012 to between $320 billion and $333 billion in 2015. And this growth is fueled by both emerging markets and the accessories market. Accessories was 27 percent of the total sector sales in 2012, and it grew by 14 percent in 2012.”

• Parsons said Kors’ accessories and related products are about 79 percent of the brand’s product mix. “So, some of the things we’ve done and are doing currently are logo products. We’ll have logo handbags, smaller leather goods and active footwear that will grow to about 25 percent [of the mix]. We will actually keep that at about the 25 percent, because we don’t want to go overboard in logos.”

• “One of our bigger surprises was that we thought retail was actually going to grow faster than wholesale. We’ve had a very good experience with wholesale. For the first half of this [fiscal] year, the wholesale business was approximately the same as the retail business.”

George Feldenkreis, vice chairman, president and chief operating officer of Perry Ellis International Inc.

• “First deliveries of our transitional product we are showing at retail are showing strong positive [comparable sales].…We started this year with the new plan with The Bay in Canada and sales results have been strong. We feel there’s a lot of opportunity for getting back into stores we have been taking a break from such as Bon-Ton, as well as growing our business with Bealls department stores and Stage Stores and offering them pieces of the Perry Ellis lifestyle brand.”

Robert Hanson, ceo, American Eagle Outfitters Inc.

• “On fashion, we are really shortening our lead times to be between four months and six weeks, where we are able to read and react to our extraction tests, and make better and smarter investment.”

• “We worked hard to position aerie strongly as an intimate competitor. It’s about bras, undies, sleep and lounge, swim and layering Ts.…The [American Eagle] girl that cross-shops and buys aerie is worth five times the value of the average aerie customer. So we’re focused on side-by-side distribution.”

Gary Schoenfeld, president and ceo, Pacific Sunwear of California Inc.

• “[The] Golden State of Mind [branding initiative] is about the creativity, the diversity and the optimism that makes California so unique, and we wanted to permeate everything we do, every touch point with the consumer and, to be honest, we wanted to be also the culture within PacSun.”

• “To win in retail is not only about what goes inside the box, it’s also what does the box stand for? You [have] to have some connection to the brand.”

• “Trust and selling…trust requires great product knowledge and it requires a sense of passion so that customers really can trust people working at our stores, trust their judgment, feel like they’re outfitting them appropriately, and if you can build that sense of trust…then you can sell.”