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.More importantly, Victoria's Secret recently unveiled its first swimwear catalog edition -- Swimwear Edition '94, which offers lines including Calvin Klein, Gottex, and Sunset Beach of California. As reported, sales of swimwear featured in the catalog doubled initial projections. First-year business is expected to top $10 million.

The Spiegel catalog, which broke May 30, also offered hefty discounts on swimwear -- up to 50 percent on such designs as Anne Klein, Gottex and La Blanca. Some good buys included an Anne Klein underwire suit, marked down to $48 from $64, and a Gottex two-piece skater suit, priced at $47, compared with the regular price of $94. Sources also point to competition from mass chains, like Kmart Corp., T.J. Maxx, and Ross-for-Less, all of which have spruced up their swimwear departments. Kmart recently launched the Kathy Ireland line of swimwear, and it is reportedly doing well.

"All these chains present a threat to department stores," said Brian Epstein, vice president and general manager of women's wear at Jantzen, which unloaded last year's designs this year at T.J. Maxx and Ross-for-Less. "The prints and colors may be different from last year, but a swimsuit is a swimsuit," said Epstein. "Consumers don't really know the difference."

Rick Leto, president of merchandising for swimwear, coats, junior's and children's merchandise at Macy's East, noted that while the retailer's decision to move up the break date was to "coordinate with the store promotion schedule," he stated that it has had to adjust its pricing on swimwear to compete with pressures outside department store forces. He added that only a few years ago, the swimsuit promotion season began in the middle of July. Now, he said, the retailer "basically runs a regular business through the middle of May."

"These days department stores have to look beyond themselves and not just look at each other," he noted, adding that the retailer has built a strong regular-price business from November through March with special store promotions and magazine advertising.

"We try to build our business early and in the middle of the season, because we just don't know how long it's going to last," he said, adding that as part of a storewide promotion, Macy's launched a week-long multiple-purchase program of swimwear.He said the swimwear department at the flagship, expanded this season by 15 percent, has done "extremely well," generating double-digit increases.

A Saks Fifth Avenue official would say only that the markdown of its swimsuits began four days earlier this year "because of competition," although it declined to name names. "We don't compete with catalogs," said Nichole Fischelis, fashion director and vice president of women's wear. A&S and Lord & Taylor officials could not be reached for comment.

Nevertheless, manufacturers are livid about the promotion season starting earlier this year. "Yes, I am angry," said Peter Rubin, president of Mainstream Swimwear, which makes better-priced swimsuits, and president of the Swimwear Industry Manufacturers Association. "They're rushing the season and putting the merchandise on sale before consumers expect it to be on sale. And it's going to hurt the manufacturer. They are giving away sales at lower margins and, in the end, what will happen is when they find out the department is not profitable, they'll just cut back on their swimwear offerings."

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