By  on January 4, 2012

Men’s wear is on a winning streak, but specialty stores aren’t ready to declare victory.

Although independent retailers finished the year strong, with a surge in business over the holidays, they are still keeping a cautious outlook about 2012.

As Wally Naymon of Kilgore Trout in Cleveland put it: “I take my optimism one day at a time, one week at a time, one month at a time. We learned some hard lessons in 2008 and 2009 and we can’t get too carried away. With the instability in Europe and everywhere else, you just have to play it cool and be a merchant. Take advantage where you can and don’t overbuy.”

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That pretty much sums up the thinking of specialty stores as they prepare to hit New York later this month for the fall market. Because the four major shows have split up their timing this year — Project will kick off its three-day run on Jan. 16, along with Capsule, but ENKNYC and MRket won’t start until Jan. 22 — stores are being forced to either skip some of the shows or elongate their visit. They will hit the trade show aisles and showrooms to finish their tailored clothing buys and look for updated sportswear vendors and trends to lure customers into their stores.

“My feeling is that we have to give people a reason to buy,” said Greg Eveloff of Clotherie in Phoenix. “Something they don’t have in their wardrobes. That way if they have money in their pockets, they can’t help but spend it.”

Tim Ryan of Harley’s in Shorewood, Wis., said suits, dresses and sport shirts, and sweaters, both fine-gauge and fancies, were among the bestsellers for holiday, along with denim. “We had a huge denim season,” he said.

The only nonperformers were heavy outerwear and winter accessories due to the warm temperatures.

Nevertheless, he reported, holiday business “exceeded expectations and plan. It was nice to see. Traffic was up and we had more buyers than lookers. It was the perfect storm.”

As a result, Ryan will be hitting the New York market for more of the same: “fancy fashion sweaters,” sport shirts and new denim resources. “That’s part of our obligation to consumers as a specialty retailer,” he said, “always offering something new and fresh.”

Even so, Ryan, who is also expecting an increase for the spring season, is being careful not to get carried away.

“We’re planning on maintaining the momentum, but we won’t go crazy with our purchases,” he said. “We’re going to be working on maintaining our inventory levels and improving our margins.”

Ken Gushner of Boyds in Philadelphia was also pleasantly surprised by the performance of the store over the holidays. “It was surprisingly good,” he said. “We had increases storewide in both men’s and women’s.” Although the cold-weather merchandise didn’t perform, the warm weather “was conducive to shopping,” he said. “So what we lost in cold-weather sales, we picked up in traffic.”

Tailored clothing was also a standout for Boyds, along with dress furnishings, sportswear and shoes, he said. “But sweaters were soft, as were outerwear, gloves, scarves and hats.”

Gushner, however, is not expecting the strength to continue. “Our business has been OK all along and December was terrific, but January and February are tough months no matter what. We’ll see where we are in the spring with the economy, the stock market and the weather. We know there’s business to be done, and we’re not overly optimistic or pessimistic — we’re just realistic.”

In New York, Gushner will be looking for “things in outerwear that are fresh,” he said. “We’re selling puffy and down jackets, but I would like alternatives. Something fresh in silhouette or material. We’re also hoping for a return of leather, which has been dead in the water.”

He said the sweater business also “needs a kick,” as the basics business has slowed. “We would like to see a new direction there, as well.”

Van Weinberg of James Davis in Memphis also was surprised at the performance of men’s wear in December, particularly in the last two weeks. Top performers included quarter-zip sweaters, fleece and the whole “outdoors” category. The store recently added a dedicated area to these products in the store and “it was a great addition to the mix,” he said. Icebreaker, Mountain Hardwear, Marmot and others were strong as Christmas gifts.

Weinberg, too, is being cautious about the future. “In the last year, we stopped the bleeding,” he said. “We managed through it, controlled our expenses and we’re going in the right direction, but it’s still tough.”

So he will be spending his open-to-buy in New York on proven performers, such as the outdoors brands. “We’re looking to grow that business and we’ll also be looking for something different in sweaters and knitwear. We’ve been doing a lot of business in quarter-zips, but what’s next?”

Butch Blum of the store of the same name in Seattle also reported strong sweater sales over the holidays, along with casual trousers, particularly five-pocket. Bucking the trend, he said outerwear was also good, “with raincoats and leathers displaying the best results.”

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