EASTER'S MAGIC FADES, LEAVING STORES UNSURE OF OUTLOOK FOR SPRING

NEW YORK--In yet another indication that holiday selling simply isn't what it used to be, March retail gains amounted to little more than a bunny hop.
With Easter Sunday falling on March 30, a week earlier than last year, a few areas, including children's wear, juniors and chiffon dresses, popped up last month, and a handful of hot brands, such as Tommy Hilfiger, Esprit and Nautica, maintained their momentum.
Spring apparel selling has been fair, at best. There were no great leaps overall last month, causing uncertainty about the remainder of the season.
A few stores, such as J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and Gottschalk's, expressed optimism. Yet, as Jan Wohlwend, general manager of the Galleria at Tyler in Riverside, Calif., observed, "Retailers think the customer is just being a little more cautious. It looks like people are just kind of checking it out, getting ready for spring." Monday's storms in the Northeast did little to get them in the buying mood.
The Galleria reported that customer traffic was up for the pre-Easter week, yet sales were mostly flat for retailers at the mall, which houses Macy's, Robinsons-May and Nordstrom, among other chains.
Retailers are getting accustomed to feeling the holiday blahs.
After several weak Christmases--last year's was another disappointment--and modest back-to-school and Easter seasons, many have concluded that holiday selling is undergoing a fundamental change.
"Holidays and gift-giving periods are decreasing in importance as a percentage of the year," said James Gray, president and chief operating officer of Macy's East. "It's been a trend for some time."
Gray described business at Macy's in the week preceding Easter as "fair." Asked which merchandise areas led the business, Gray responded, "There were no standouts--nothing unusual."
The mood at Macy's crosstown rival, Bloomingdale's, was just about the same.
"I don't know what Easter is," said Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive officer of Bloomingdale's, referring to the holiday's significance to the retail world. "It's like back-to-school. Most holidays seem to have been bigger in the past. We all remember when back-to-school was a big thing. All the holiday business seems to be spread out a lot more now."
Nonetheless, the week prior to Easter was a "very good week" for Bloomingdale's, Gould said.
"We had very good private shopping nights," he said, adding that all in all, "it was an OK month." He continued, "I don't think people say, 'Oh wow, it's Easter--we're going to go crazy.' But you look at the kids business, and the kids business gets a pop."
"Easter is not as important as it used to be," said Linda Kerr, vice president and general merchandise manager at Proffitt's, based in Knoxville, Tenn. "Two weeks before Easter used to be gangbusters, and now it's almost insignificant."
Kerr attributed the change to more relaxed dress codes and customers buying closer to need.
One Federated Department Stores executive said the changing retail patterns stem from an aging American population. Holiday times, he said, used to signal family shopping outings to the malls and main streets for new outfits for church and family gatherings. But with the population getting older, and with children growing up, there's less of a reason to hit the stores.
Many would rather invest in the stock market than buy a new suit, several retailers pointed out.
But it's not just the apparel crowd that's noticing a change. "We definitely see a norming of the business cycles," said Jim McCann, president of 1-800-Flowers, the flower retailer. "We don't have the huge peaks and contrasted valleys we used to have. Through a multiplicity of channels of shopping now available, consumers can buy what they want when they want it." Among those multiplying shopping channels are electronic shopping, outlets and catalogs. He also said that people are hooked into sales, with many of the sharper markdowns seen after holidays.
"People have been conditioned to buy after the holidays," McCann said.
Last month, Proffitt's was aggressive in pre-Easter promotional activity and sales, said Kerr. Children's wear, particularly dresses, was strong in March, as was juniors and prom business. For the entire season, Proffitt's is on plan, with double-digit increases over last spring, said Kerr.
For spring, moderate sportswear has included more upgraded merchandise, such as lined linen. Traditional coordinates and knits were strong, while blouses were not. Best-selling resources include Tommy Hilfiger, introduced last fall, as well as Susan Bristol and Esprit.
Lord & Taylor also was aggressive, heavily advertising dresses. Marshall Hilsberg, chairman and ceo of L&T, speaking Monday night at the store's annual dress design scholarship ceremony, said L&T's dress business is up more than 14 percent on a season-to-date basis.
Macy's has also kept up its promotional calendar, much of which is tied to holiday shopping. Despite the flattening of sales, the calendar is not being materially changed, Gray noted. However, he added, "We are recognizing the holiday trends in our financial planning and our buying. We're not planning [holidays] as strong."
Ted Coleman, general merchandise manager of Jacobson's, said the children's area was strong, but so were dresses, especially Easter dresses. "Traffic wasn't bad; it was pretty good in fact. I know we made our numbers in the juniors and kids areas."
At Miami-based Burdine's, spring kicks off in February, earlier than many other department store, due to its location. "Easter serves as more of an indication of winding down the resort season," said a spokesman. "Our temporary residents usually stay through Easter."
At J.C. Penney, Easter hasn't diminished in importance, but the selling season is compressed into one critical week leading up to the holiday, according to Kathleen Mills, vice president of merchandising, women's apparel.
"With a lot of the holidays, the traditional peaks have gotten shorter," Mills observed. "The challenge is to be ready and to be able to handle it from a customer service perspective."
With the calendar shift, Penney's achieved a 31 percent sales increase last week, Mills said. When compared with the holiday week last year, the gain would be about 5 or 6 percent, giving Penney's executives some hopes for spring. "Sales were excellent last week," Mills said. "We were very pleased."
The earlier Easter falls, the easier it gets to pinpoint spring trends, Mills pointed out. "You can really identify trends across the division, because the customer is buying whole outfits, and she's liable to buy both apparel and accessories," Mills said. "The other importance is that it peaks more violently in the Southern tier of the country." Penney's saw action with color, especially in silk apparel, and sheer looks, including sheer tops in misses' and junior dresses, sheer layering and chiffons. Ruffles, bows, dots and little floral prints also checked fast.
"Easter does kick off spring selling," Mills observed. "Everybody starts early spring events in late February or March, all geared toward Easter, and then the tone changes to real casual looks as we move toward summer."
Easter isn't as important for Neiman Marcus, where spring selling for designer clothing starts as early as November. "We had a very strong weekend in women's ready-to-wear both Friday and Saturday, and certainly we attribute some of that strength to at least the psychological aspect of it being the Easter weekend," said Ann Stordahl, senior vice president of Neiman Marcus.
"I personally think fewer and fewer people buy specifically for Easter, but it has a psychological aspect of being the start of spring. We are also anticipating a strong after-Easter this week with many kids being off from school."
Neiman's has had a robust spring season, with women's apparel sales climbing by a percentage in the mid-teens in March. Designer and couture clothing have excelled since the earliest days of spring selling, Stordahl noted. "We've seen a lot of resurgence in the total day dress business, which I attribute to the fact that there are a lot of trends going on there," she added, citing soft, sheer long dresses, romantic looks and sheath styles as bestsellers. "It's been very good," Stordahl noted. "We have no reason to believe that trend is going to change."
West Coast retailers reported a mixed bag of pre-Easter sales, with upper-end stores winding down spring sales, and mid-priced retailers seeing the holiday as a kickoff for the season.
Customers began clamoring for the latest spring fashions as early as December at Fred Segal in Santa Monica, Calif. The store had its "best season ever in retail," with the strongest sales in Dolce & Gabbana, said Pascale McCracken, an owner of the 2,250-square-foot store.
"Dresses and skirts. That's all I'm selling. I haven't sold a suit in weeks," McCracken said.
Dolce & Gabbana's floral chiffon dresses in just-below-the-knee and ankle lengths are selling better than anything else in the store, at prices ranging from $1,700 to $2,200. Skirts from the same line, ranging from $700 to $1,100, are also popular.
Neiman's in Beverly Hills also experienced the strongest sales beginning in late January and ending in March. By the time Easter weekend neared, customers were focusing on gift buying, such as candy and fragrances, and on women's shoes and millinery, said John Martens, general manager.
Designer fashion has more than held its own, however, with Gianfranco Ferre, Richard Tyler and Herve Leger pulling in sales increases against last year, Martens said.
At Gottschalk's, Joe Levy, chairman and ceo of the Fresno, Calif.-based department store chain, said sportswear, career and weekend wear sales were strong. Liz Claiborne sales increased "well into the double digits," while swimsuit sales doubled those of 1996, he said.
Levy said he expects pre-Easter sales to be a prelude to a busy spring for the retail industry.
At Fashion Island, in Newport Beach, Calif., customer traffic and sales increased 7 to 10 percent over the holiday weekend. Sales of women's sportswear were up, especially at Bloomingdale's, according to a mall spokeswoman. The mall is also anchored by Neiman's and Robinsons-May.
"There is still obviously some buildup on Easter," Howard Eilenberg, retail analyst at LJR Redbook Research. But the lift is not as great as it used to be, he added, and the week after is a letdown.
"Penney's and the May Co. did not hit their plans for the week, and neither of them will make their plans for the month," Eilenberg said. "Others were pretty much on target. The apparel business has been pretty good. It's been the hard lines that are kind of dragging.
"Federated did not expect a great month," Eilenberg said. "They had an excellent month a year ago and were expecting to be flat for comp-store sales March. At least it was not under expectations. Penney's had expectations of high-single digit comp-store sales increases. They will be flat for the month, and it is hard lines that are dragging them down. The May Co. will be positive for the month, but below expectations." Most retailers report March sales on April 10.
"Easter undoubtedly is still a factor in spring business," said Kurt Barnard, retail analyst. "This year, some March sales will look extremely good because they will include Easter buying, and will be viewed against some weak comparisons.
"Last year, consumers shopped for Easter in April," Barnard continued. "In order to get an accurate picture of spring business, you'll have to wait and compare combined March and April sales, with the same months last year."

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