NEW YORK -- The urge to mark down swimwear appears to be getting stronger. Retailers nationwide have begun slashing prices about a week earlier than last year, moving up the annual markdown ritual, long a sensitive issue.

Macy's East appears to have triggered a domino effect in the New York area. It quietly marked down swimsuits in its Herald Square location at the end of last week -- about five days earlier than last year. Abraham & Straus, Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue followed, with all three announcing sales in Sunday's New York Times. Sources noted that as a result, a rippling pricing pressure has also been felt in the Boston area. Filene's, for example, was forced to mark down its swimsuits last weekend because of pressure from Jordan Marsh, part of the A&S/Jordan Marsh chain of Federated Department Stores. Filene's spokesman would not comment on the matter.

I. Magnin, which operates 12 stores in Southern California and Arizona, said it has been forced to mark down its swimsuits starting today -- more than a week earlier than a year ago -- because of "competitive pressures," said Joan Bergholt, senior vice president and general merchandising manager.

Bergholt declined to name the other retailers, but according to sources, the competition included Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue, which began slashing prices of its swimsuits last weekend. She said that until two years ago, the chain had not marked down swimwear until the July Fourth weekend.

While industry observers note that retailers are trying to capitalize on the sudden burst of warm weather, following months of stubborn cold, they also point to other factors, particularly the booming catalog business and discount stores, which have dealt a blow to the department store swimwear businesses.

Discounters and catalogs, which have increasingly beefed up their swimsuit offerings at low prices, have forced traditional retailers to rethink how they manage their swimsuit business.

Starting in the middle of last month, catalog companies such as Spiegel and Victoria's Secret offered hefty discounts of name-brand labels. For example, Victoria's Secret's summer edition catalog, which broke May 23, offered labels including Gottex and La Blanca at up to 30 percent off. A black and white bikini by Baja Blue was marked down to $49, from $59, while a Gottex bikini was discounted to $89, from $119.

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