By  on February 10, 2011

Men’s wear could be the leading indicator of the long-hoped-for consumer revival.

The sector was a strong performer over the holidays and has continued its steady climb upward this year. In December, MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, a macroeconomic report tracking national retail sales, reported that men’s wear sales rose 9.9 percent that month. In January, sales increased 8.1 percent, according to MasterCard.

The improvements have retailers in a buoyant mood as they head to Las Vegas next week for trade shows even as they battle a harsh winter, rising raw material and fuel prices and lingering financial uncertainty. Store executives hope men will continue to shop for the rest of the year as they update their wardrobes with modern sport coats, slimmer silhouettes in suits and select sportswear pieces.

“If you take the weather into consideration, it’s OK,” said Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer for Brooks Brothers. “January was a positive comp for us and was on plan. And February month-to-date is comping like January. It’s ever so slightly off plan, but not enough to be concerning.”

Because of the slight downturn, Amendola said Brooks wound up with some fall leftovers, “but that’s a good thing because with the cold weather, people still want fall goods.”

At the same time, he said, spring merchandise has started to check and Amendola is hopeful that sales will continue to build. “Super Bowl Sunday is traditionally the lowest-volume day of the season, but we had a good day. It’s still a little early to read, but I think people just have cabin fever and want to get out,” he said.

Additionally, since Easter is so late this year, this also bodes well for the season, he said. “When it’s late, it gives us the best opportunity to sell spring clothes.”

The one minor concern remains the price increases that are beginning to hit the market, Amendola said. For spring, prices have risen by between 3 and 10 percent, depending on the product category, with cotton merchandise the most affected. “There’s some inflation, but consumers are still willing to spend,” he said.

In a research report last week, Margaret Whitfield of Sterne Agee said men’s retailer Jos. A. Bank Clothiers raised prices on its shirts beginning Feb. 1, with the company’s top-end Signature line increasing 21 percent to $115 from $95, and its Executive collection jumping 16.8 percent to $69.50 from $59.50. The wrinkle-free Travelers line rose to $87.50 from $79.50, a 10 percent hike, similar to the increase Brooks Bros. instituted in early January, she said, “which apparently has not been met with any price resistance.”

Allison Levy, merchandise manager of men’s wear for the Doneger Group, said the mood among retailers is good. “They started January on a high note, and given the traffic and the weather, they’re [upbeat]. Men’s has been outperforming the rest of apparel and it’s been the classic side of men’s as opposed to young men’s that has been strong.”

Performing best, she said, has been “higher-ticket” merchandise, including suit separates in gray, earth tones and plaids. Sport coats also have been strong. “The item coat is coming back into the picture,” she said.

For fall, Levy expects the heritage trend to continue in both men’s and young men’s categories. Workwear-inspired looks and brands that appeal to the “country gentleman” trend will be the winners, she said. “And on the technical side, bold color and quiet, streamlined silhouettes” will rule the market. Slimmer silhouettes also will “propel the guy back into the store,” she added. “If he doesn’t have it, he doesn’t look trend-right and that holds true in all categories: tailored, bottoms, dress shirts and neckwear,” said Levy.

Ken Giddon, president of Rothmans, is also upbeat, despite the relentless number of winter storms that have plagued the New York City area.

“You can’t fight Mother Nature,” he said. “Everyone has gotten whacked by these storms. The tone is still good, but it doesn’t help that much when you’re closed for two days.”

Nevertheless, Giddon said the “fear is gone” among American consumers, “which is a very good thing. It also means retailers are willing to take a little more risk. Whether the recovery is weak or strong, it’s still better than it was a year ago.”

Giddon said he’ll be searching for sport coats that fall in between “the traditional, preppy look and the funky stuff. There’s an opportunity for someone to make a modern sport coat that falls in the middle ground.”

He’s also looking for better tuxedos. “People are willing to spend on formal events and there’s a gap in the market.” And in sportswear, Giddon is hoping to find some products “at a good price that are not all over the discount sites. That’s why we walk a lot in Vegas, so we can sort through a lot of sameness.”

Howard Vogt, owner of Rodes in Louisville, Ky., said he was feeling optimistic about the future. “We were up in the high-single digits in January and we think the whole year will be like that. So we’re sharpening our pencils and looking at things in season.”

He said the pendulum is “swinging back to better again,” and he’s shifting his sportswear mix more toward higher-price goods. “We had added opening-price sportswear, but now we’re going back to carrying what we love,” said Vogt.

Early spring has started off well for the store, with good sales of “soft coats and great sport shirts,” he said. And for fall, he will be looking for more of the same and will also be “doing a push with leather and shearling. We’re looking for specialty items, cool pieces that just look great.”

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