NEW YORK--Hoping to capitalize on the consumers' hunt for value, an increasing number of department and specialty stores, as well as major chains, are spotlighting their moderate-price private label fashions for fall. Some are promoting their lines in ad campaigns on TV and in magazines; others are upscaling their private label departments with better fixtures. And several, including Target and Lerner New York, are staging fashions shows at trendy restaurants. Such moves are being driven by stores' desire to differentiate themselves from their competition. Department stores' push into private label is a sharp contrast with two years ago, when they were pushing moderate-price branded resources. However, these stores now feel they need more control over their own destinies, given the current flux of the moderate zone. They point to Leslie Fay's fast-shrinking market share, the closing of Eddie Haggar and the major revamping of key labels like Chaus. The coordinates business, including Alfred Dunner, has also been experiencing lackluster sales, blamed on the lack of newness. "It makes you realize you can't count on going back to the same guys over and over again, and getting the same results," said Mike Johnson, divisional merchandise manager at Carson Pirie Scott, the Chicago-based department store chain. "Private label allows us to step out with confidence and differentiate ourselves." Carson's is cutting back as much as 20 percent on fringe casual resources to make room for its active-inspired, two-year-old private label program called Great Lakes Recreation, which offers fleece polo shirts and stirrup pants as well as trendy T-shirts. The store is promoting the line through expanded in-store boutiques, mannequins and catalogs. Johnson added that the company is focusing on its moderate private label business instead of the better or bridge zone because the moderate business is "more predictable." Here are other developments on the retail front: R.H. Macy is homing in on International Concepts or INC--its moderate-to-better private label--which offers such fashions as denim vests, novelty sweaters and silk twill blazers. Introduced two years ago, the line is now in 54 Macy's stores and will be picked up by Federated Stores this fall, according to Carolyn Moss, fashion director. Marketing plans for the line include sprucing up its environment with wooden floors and fancier fixtures, as well as launching an ad campaign in major fashion magazines this fall. Two weeks ago, Macy's Herald Square touted INC fashions in its Broadway windows. Under a new management team, Lerner New York, a division of The Limited Inc., is aggressively developing a stronger private label program, and threw a fashion show for the press in June at Bryant Park Grill to call attention to its new fashions. Last month, it phased out its one label, New York Style, which covered all its products, and is now marketing its lines under new niche labels. Activewear, a new program, will be marketed under NY & Co.; Lerner's basic line of sportswear, dresses and outerwear will be under the Metropolitan label; its knitwear line will be called Metro 212, and its more updated collection, which also features its high-end leather designs, will be sold under Metro Collection. J.C. Penney, which in 1994 launched its first TV campaign promoting its private label brands--Worthington, Arizona and Hunt Club--is also beefing up advertising in newspapers and mailings, according to Don Scaccia, vice president of merchandising and development. Worthington is its career-based line, while Hunt Club markets misses' casual fashions. Arizona offers denim-driven fashions. In March, Penney's threw its first fashion show in New York since 1983. The show, at the Fashion Institute of Technology, highlighted such trends as structured career jackets and flannel shirts from its stable of private brands. "There is definitely more of a push toward moderate private label--at the expense of branded vendors," said Kurt Barnard, publisher of the Retail Marketing Report. "Stores are looking for better margins, and they want to differentiate themselves with their own programs. It gives them a separate identity. They are counting on this strategy to entice people to go out and buy something new." Such strategies don't please branded moderate resources, who feel squeezed by the stores' push into private label. They also complain that the specialty stores marketing blitz of their private label fashions is also making the fashion scene more cluttered. "It makes doing business a lot more difficult," bemoaned Danielle Anduze, design director at Robert Stock Ltd., a moderate-price sportswear manufacturer that has been forced to develop more special fabrics. "We have to constantly improve our prices," said Anduze. "The challenge is to go out and find different product that stores can't do. Stores like J.C. Penney are aggressively promoting their private label lines as brands." She added that the company has had to keep wholesale prices at about $25 for silk jog sets and $15 for silk tops. Robert Stock is also getting away from basics, like printed cotton jerseys, and opting for novelty silk fabrics and novelty knits in different textures, sourced throughout Europe, including Bulgaria and Russia. "For vendors, it puts a lot of pressure on prices," said Lawrence G. Lessne, president of Bonaventure Textiles USA, which markets SK by Jessica Tierney, a moderate updated sportswear label. "Stores can easily knock off key items, though it is difficult to knock off collections." Many stores say that developing private label is necessary because it gives them an identity and helps them distinguish themselves from their competition. Macy's, for example, is using INC to develop its fashion statement on corporate casual, or what it calls "casual that works." Some early fall fashions checking well include twinsets, flannel shirts and ribbed turtlenecks, according to Moss. The line retails from $12 to $128. "We are putting major emphasis on INC," said Moss. She added that the retailer will continue with its other, more basic, moderate-price private label program called Jennifer Moore, which will be renamed Innovation Sport this fall. No major marketing push is planned, however. Penney's is also aiming to capitalize on corporate casual through its private label brand called Worthington, which offers head-to-toe dressing, including knit shells. "We are placing a heavy emphasis on business casual, starting at the end of last spring," said Scaccia. He added that Worthington has posted double-digit gains over the year-ago period. Arizona, the denim line, has also been doing very well. "We are developing these labels more as brands," said Scaccia. "We are putting a sizable budget into our private label programs and developing our TV ad campaign." He declined to spell out details of upcoming campaigns. Carson's is counting on developing a fashion-forward casual statement through Great Lakes Recreation, which has posted double-digit gains over the year-ago period. "We are developing a casual department around this label," said Johnson, adding that the in-store shops range from 1,000 to 1,500 square feet. The bulk of the merchandise retails from $19.99 to $29.99. Carson's is trying to update its 10-year-old Hastings & Smith career sportswear line with an expanded array of colors and better fabrics. Turtlenecks, for example, will be offered in all cotton for fall. The line retails from $9.96 to $29.99. Lerner New York is hoping to create a new brand awareness among its consumers, who had previously snubbed its mostly mustard and pea green merchandise. "In retailing today, you have to have a point of view, and these brands are giving us a distinctive personality," said Barbara Hayes, vice president of merchandising for Lerner. "We consider all of these to be sub-brands." Lerner's outfits retail for $100 or less. As part of its marketing and advertising push, Lerner is testing ads in consumer magazines, including Redbook, this fall. The retailer also went all out in its window displays this past month. Its store windows feature photographs of its fashions on a mock runway, complete with paparazzi. "We had a casting call in June for people to play fashion editors, and paparazzi," said Hayes. "We had a lot of fun doing it."
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