By  on June 30, 2008

Considering that trend-driven shoppers usually have no qualms about spending on a whim or frequenting an array of stores for their needs, it seems logical that consumers who shop by category rather than by brand would take a more traditional approach and head for the variety of department stores.

By far, dresses have been the standout item in recent seasons among the three categories of dresses, suits and eveningwear. Now that dresses have become a wardrobe staple again, major retailers are trying to further interest with a wide range of styles, window displays, look books and other strategies. Many designers used dresses to open their fall runway shows and a plethora of dresses are being shown in resort collections, both of which bode well for the category.

Dresses are often considered a great buy — neck-to-knees wardrobing for one price — and now with the dicey economy, extremely difficult retail environment and one of the most promotional spring seasons on record, they've become an even more attractive purchase.

Forty-one percent of this year's respondents said they shop at department stores most often for dresses, suits and eveningwear, a 1 percent increase from last year's survey. Unlike most specialty retailers, department stores still house individual departments for these respective items. Even though more sportswear makers are producing dresses than ever, the depth of offerings tends to be more vast in dress departments. In addition, department stores now house additional dresses in other departments — including sportswear — which gives shoppers an even broader range of dresses from which to choose.

Suits and eveningwear are often tough to find in specialty stores, unless retailers specialize in either category. Some speculate that suits may see an uptick in sales, as financial corporations have handed out plenty of pink slips and displaced workers will find themselves interviewing for new jobs. This fall's expected return to more ladylike silhouettes — think of the actresses' ensembles on "Mad Men" — also could help the suit business.

Eveningwear, on the other hand, may take a dip in sales with more Americans minding their wallets due to increasing fuel and food prices, as well as the real estate debacle. In addition, the popularity of short cocktail dresses for formal events could chip away at that business.Specialty stores finished second as the most popular place to shop for dresses, suits and eveningwear, with 19 percent of respondents claiming to shop in this channel. That's 2 percent more than last year's survey. Discounters and Internet/catalogue tied for third, each capturing 8 percent of those polled. Each channel saw a 1 percent increase compared with last year.

Meanwhile, 22 percent of the people polled said they never buy this category, a three percent drop from last year.

In terms of specific stores where women shop for dresses, suits and eveningwear, Macy's finished first among stores where they regularly shop, with 31 percent of those picking it. As for the one store where they shop most often, Macy's also took the top spot, with 16 percent of the votes.

Both of these figures were consistent with a year ago.

The retailer also has bumped up its offerings to try to suit more women with different incomes, body shapes and style preferences. When asked about best-selling dress labels this spring, Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director of women's at Macy's East, didn't offer a few — she named 15. Among them are BCBG, A.B.S., Maggy London, Anna Sui, Lauren by Ralph Lauren, ck Calvin Klein and Betsey Johnson.

J.C. Penney, Kohl's and Dillard's ranked second, third and fourth, respectively, for a regularly shopped top store and favorite store. Macy's, Penney's and Kohl's have revved up their advertising and brand-building efforts in the past year. For example, Macy's has made an all-out TV push using Martha Stewart, Usher, Donald Trump and other popular names to update its image. Kohl's has added exclusive Simply Vera Vera Wang and Daisy Fuentes lines. Penney's has revamped much of its merchandising and has a number of exclusive lines, including Fabulosity by Kimora Lee Simmons, Decree and WhiteTag, along with the American Living line developed by the Global Brand Concepts division at Polo Ralph Lauren.

This month, Penney's executives singled out dresses, along with juniors, accessories and contemporary apparel, as being among the bright spots that haven't cracked under the weight of the poor economy.

TJ Maxx and Ross Dress for Less tied for fifth in terms of stores regularly shopped, each garnering 9 percent. That was a 1 percent uptick compared with last year for the former and a 4 percent increase for the latter.That the off-pricers placed in the top five indicates that consumers still want branded apparel in this category. They just don't want to — or can't — pay full price.

Last month, TJ Maxx's parent company, The TJX Cos. Inc., attributed a nearly 20 percent first-quarter income gain to shoppers' thirst for lower-priced items due to rising gas and food costs and tight credit.

In general, industry observers have speculated that the financial crunch could bode well for midtier stores and brands, since shoppers will be thinking twice about buying designer or luxury labels.

When asked to name a store they shopped most often for this category, 13 percent of participants chose "other" — indicating that local independent retailers still pull in a good crowd.

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