TRACKING SALES, COAST TO COAST

Byline: Anne D'Innocenzio, New York, and Carol Emert, Washington / Annie Gowen / Georgia Lee / Rusty Williamson / Lynn Rhodes O'Rourke / Michael Marlow

NEW YORK--There's no doubt the April-June swimwear retail period has been a difficult one. Unseasonably cool weather drove many major department stores across the country to slash swimsuit prices right before Memorial Day weekend. That was a week earlier than the year-ago period. Consequently, many stores are reporting flat sales compared with the year-ago period. Still, the season did have some bright spots. The push-up bra look and vibrant colors, including bright pastels, were two trends that had a limited appeal in the Midwest, but drove sales on the West and East Coasts as well as in the South. Swimsuits that can be mixed and matched, retro styles, including belted looks, and skirted suits all scored well across the country. Here's what was hot for the season, by region.

The Northeast
NEW YORK-- Saks Fifth Avenue managed to drum up double-digit sales over theyear-ago period, despite unseasonably cool weather.
"It's been a real dogfight," said Scott Schramm, divisional merchandise manager for swimwear, as well as career and casual sportswear."We really had to hustle to meet our plan. In the swimwear and coat business, people watch the weather report."
He added that Saks did aggressive testing back in March and April to get a read on color.
"We switched into bright colors when we realized that the dark and serious suits weren't selling," he said. In another effort to drum up swimsuit sales at Saks, customer sales representatives intensively began calling their customers, informing them of new deliveries.
Overall, Schramm said that bright colors, texture, including pucker, pleating and overlay, and bust enhancement, from floating underwire to the push-up version, scored well with the consumer. The retailers' major vendors include Anne Cole, Gottex and Baja Blue. Schramm said the two-piece business outpaced sales of the one-piecers, adding, "I think because of all this new construction, people felt more comfortable wearing the two-piece."
At Bloomingdale's, push-up bras, as well as skirted and belted styles, were some of the best-selling looks, according to Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president, fashion director. Hot colors included either white or bright pastel shades. Some of the retailer's top vendors are Gottex and Anne Cole. Last November, the retailer also added Malia Mills, whose suits with shine were hits, said Ruttenstein. He said it was too early to offer sales results for this season.
In the Washington, D.C., area, bust-enhancing tops, hip-concealing skirts, bikini separates and tropical colors have been four of the hottest swimwear trends this season, local retailers said.
At Woodward & Lothrop, April and May sales combined were flat against last year, but May "was very strong," according to Patty Dillon, swimwear buyer.
"We keyed into a stronger fashion assortment [this spring], and the customer certainly was looking for newness and fashion--she was not looking for the same old thing," she said.
In particular, the retailer did well with the bust-enhancing suits, which were popular for all age groups. One of Woodie's best-selling suits during April and May was a Baja Blue underwire bikini in a "bubble" fabric. It comes in black, indigo, hunter and red and retails for $74.
The "Mighty Bra" bust enhancement system used by Baja Blue is also driving strong sales in brands such as Swim Systems, Rebel Beach, Daffy and Tango Rose, all by Beach Patrol.
Skirted looks were also very popular among all age groups, including the $90 skater-skirt Calvin Klein suit with spaghetti straps.
A Lord & Taylor store in Chevy Chase, Md., has increased sales this year by catering to a more conservative, older customer who is looking for concealment, according to Nora Piroglu, a sales associate in the swimwear department.
"Sales have picked up a lot this year," Piroglu said. "Last year we got a lot of complaints we didn't have enough for older women. Lord & Taylor is a conservative store, and we have to cater to a conservative clientele."
This spring, the store did well with skirted suits and suits with lower-cut legs instead of the French cuts that were heavily stocked. Last year, the store had heavily stocked up on French cuts.The Midwest
CHICAGO-- "We were doing well for cruise, but business has been flat over the past two months because of the cool weather," said Jean Sternman, swimwear buyer in the misses' category for 49 out of 53 stores at Milwaukee-based Carson Pirie Scott. "We are going against the heat of last summer."
Still, the retailer continues to do well with such labels as Jantzen, Sessa and Mainstream. Among some of this season's bestsellers were a $63 checkered suit with a layered look by Mainstream as well as suits with built-in shorts by Sirena and Jantzen, retailing from $65 to $80.
Overall, texture drove sales, including the textured nautical designs from La Blanca and tanks with gold foil prints from Robby Len.
"Yellow and bright colors were supposed to drive the business, but they ended up doing just OK," Sternman said, adding that the most popular colors were forest green, black and red.
The retailer did not heavily invest in the push-up bra, based on lackluster response earlier in the season from their consumers.
A spokeswoman at Marshall Field's State Street store reported that the $68 skirted suit called Aquacize by Robby Len made for serious swimming and has been a big seller, as has Violets by Leilani, which is a ruby color padded add-a-size bikini for $50.
One strong seller was Born in the U.S.A., a flag swimsuit by Sunset Beach, retailing for $38. Another best-selling suit is The Leafy by Citrus, an add-a-size yellow textured bikini at $64.
Deirdre Curry, the director of the Chanel boutique in downtown Chicago, said the tank suit, with the push-up bra, corseted bodice and a patent belt (an accessory), has been the hottest-selling item. The Chanel boutique has it in cobalt, black and fuchsia, but not the lime green that Claudia Schiffer wore on a recent cover of Vogue.
"That's been a really hot suit," she says. "The reaction we've gotten from the cover of Vogue was tremendous. We've gotten phone calls from around the country."
The suit retails for $445.

The Southeast
ATLANTA--Swimwear has been below plan at Atlanta-based Rich's/Goldsmith's/
Lazarus, according to Sheila Kamensky, vice president, fashion merchandising.
"We attribute it to the weather," she said. "We had a cool spring and got off to a slow start."
Hot trends include suits with figure-controlling features, such as the Miracle Suit by Mainstream and those suits with bust-enhancers. Suits sold in separate-sized tops and bottoms have also done well, particularly those from Choice.
Other trends include colors, such as blue and green, and metallic and gingham prints. Details, such as hardware trims, buckles, clips and zippers have performed well.
Swimwear sales are running 11 percent ahead of last year at Jackson, Miss.-based McCrae's and should end up for the year at around the same rate of increase, according to Jude Muse, divisional merchandise manager.
"What's selling is bust enhancers, bust enhancers and bust enhancers--from just about anybody," Muse said. "The trend has spilled over from innerwear to swimwear and is causing a big increase in two-piece business, because that's where it's done best."
Overall, best-selling resources include Athena, Jantzen and La Blanca, with these three offering strong bust enhancer suits.
Customers are also responding to trends such as checks, textures and color, with black not performing as well as in recent seasons. The most popular color palette has been warm and bright--in shades of red, orange and bright yellow.
Suits with tummy control or illusion and draping that whittle the waist have also been strong, from resources such as La Blanca and Mainstream.
"Our competitors have been putting swimwear on sale all season," Muse said. "We think stores are jumping the gun, which ultimately hurts the swimwear category."
Swimwear has been slightly down at Birmingham, Ala.-based Parisian, in part because of a major construction and renovation at the chain's flagship store, according to Arlene Goldstein, fashion director. She added that customers had responded strongly to newness in preview collections, both misses' and junior.
Bestsellers include a structured one-piece by Robbie Len, at $60, and high-waisted two-piece styles by Sessa and LaBlanca, each priced at $66. Goldstein said customers were more price-conscious than usual this season.--The Southwest
DALLAS--At Neiman Marcus, classic one-piece looks in black, white, brights and optics are making the biggest waves, especially the more retro styles, said Deborah Kaplan, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for leisure sportswear.
Overall, swimwear sales are ahead by at least 10 percent at Neiman's, with units in Florida, Texas and California leading the pack.
"The tank is still the number one style," said Kaplan. "But the two-piece is still hot as well."
Although customers haven't made price an issue, best-selling suits have mostly fallen into the $80-to-$100 range.
Best-selling vendors include Gottex, Karla Colletto, Anne Cole, Gideon Oberson, Anne Klein, Calvin Klein and Adrienne Vittadini.
At J.C. Penney, junior and misses' swimwear sales are both ahead of last year's levels, noted Bev Anderson, especially in California, Chicago and Long Island, New York.
Stars include tanks and two-piece styles in brights and in Americana themes.
Top junior looks include a flag-theme two-piece from Sunset Beach, at $42; a sunflower-motif two-piece by Ocean Pacific, at $64; a plaid tank from Sunrays by Mystic Bay, at $38, and a gingham and daisy tank from Sunrays by Mystic Bay, at $28.50.
Best-selling misses' styles include Robby Len's embroidered high-neck tank, at $56.

The South
MIAMI--Stacey Siegel, owner of the 25-unit Orlando-based Everything But Water, said she's been selling pastel sherbets and color blocking brights for the season.
She noted that other trends include mesh and the new metallics. She pointed to Bendigo as one line that has "wonderful metallics." Siegel added that the chain is doing well with suits with push-up bras, pointing to the success of Baja Blue, which has heavily invested in the look.
At Everything But Water, price is a "non-issue," Siegel said. "We're selling all price points from $30 to $300."
"There's definitely a movement to brights both in prints and solids," said president Mark Sidle of the 14-unit Miami-based Swim 'N Sport. "We're getting off the dark colors that have been out there for a while now."
Sidle said, however, getting trend direction has been difficult, largely due to a lack of newness in the market.
"But I think that the market is now shifting gears into newness," he said. "We haven't had that for the past two or three years."
Sidle said $65 is still his customer's average expenditure.
Mary Groninger, president of Sarasota-based Swim City, also notedbright colors, including pink, in either hot or pastel, are driving sales.The West Coast
A spokesman for Mervyn's, based in Hayward, Calif., said swimwear sales are down from a year ago due to California's bad weather as well as the poor state of the economy. Neons are out, he said, and navy is in.
Gingham prints are popular, too, and Ocean Pacific, which is showing a lot of gingham, is currently one of the best-performing brands. Most of its other brands are private label. The Wonderbra craze continues, he said, adding that padded tops are hot sellers, especially those sold separately to mix and match with various bottoms. Beth Jensen, misses' swimwear buyer for Gottshalk's, reportedswimwear sales for the year are up 16 percent. During May, sales were up 20 percent from the year-ago period, she noted.
"Considering California's weather, we're very pleased," she said, adding that conservative suits offering more coverage are her bestsellers.
At Nordstrom's six stores in the Los Angeles region, contemporary styles with high-cut waist and high-cut legs, as well as push-up and padded bra styles, are strong. Colors driving the business include hot brights or icy pastels.

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