Byline: Sophy Fearnley-Whittingstall

CHICAGO--Mass market retailers Venture, Target and Montgomery Ward each take a very different approach to their dress business, as evidenced by recent visits to those stores in the western suburbs here.
At Target and Ward's, dresses are merchandised alongside tops and bottoms in the sportswear department and selections are limited. Ward's had a separate area, although it wasn't labeled as a dress department.
Target was clearly going after a junior customer, while Ward's had good offerings for an older customer. Venture was somewhere in between.

At Target's store on Cermak Road in Broadview, selection was small but on-the-nose fashion-wise, hitting on trends such as apron dresses, baby-dolls and fit-and-flares. The styles were appropriate for the young or young-at-heart, but there was nothing suitable for a more mature customer.
Most dresses were from Target's Sostanza private label brand. Denim got a lot of play, such as in a short apron dress, which comes with a denim skirt or contrasting cotton floral skirt, at $16.99, and in longer, more conservative styles, available with an Empire waist or straight, button-through silhouette, at $29.99.
A few fixtures were devoted to rayon print baby-doll dresses ranging from $16.99 to $19.99--although it wasn't clear how the cheaper styles differed from the more expensive other than in the actual print. Another couple of four-way fixtures were devoted to polyester and cotton knit fit-and-flare dresses at $24.99 in a variety of prints and colors.
The only branded dresses were a rayon print skort dress by All Dressed Up at $14.99 and a gaudy-looking pink and turquoise tie-dye cotton sundress by Nexxit at $9.99.
The merchandise was clearly presented, but displays were minimal--a couple of the fixtures had photos of models wearing dresses similar to those on display.

At Venture, located on 22nd Street in Oakbrook, dresses were also mixed among the sportswear offerings, and they were easy to miss because the department was large and crowded.
A back wall rack had long floral print rayon jumpers by a variety of manufacturers on sale for $17.88, reduced from $27.99-$29.99. There were also various rayon skort slipdresses by Anegada's Collection at $19.99 and patchwork rayon jumpers by Jessica Stevens at $21.99.
Fashion looks were limited to juniors, with denim apron dresses with plaid skirts the strongest. One over-embellished style, sold with a matching hair "scrungie" made from scraps of plaid by True Blue was $24.99. A simpler style by Jessica Stevens, a Venture private label, was $21.99, and a long, striped cotton and acrylic knit column dress by California Gold Rush at $24.99 also caught the eye.
Although the department was unpleasantly crowded, Venture did attempt to show customers how to get the looks right--showing appropriate accessories alongside the dresses. For example, a long necklace was looped on a hanger with a vintage-style rayon dress; apron dresses and jumpers were paired with appropriate tops.MONTGOMERY WARD
The largest selection of dresses among the three stops was at the Montgomery Ward unit in the Yorktown Shopping Center in Lombard, which had a large department on the edge of its juniors section. It also carried dresses in its petites and large-size areas.
Ward's catered to both a career and casual customer, although its dress styles were the least updated of the three stores visited.
Career looks included a short-sleeve, rayon, slightly fitted dress with cream embroidery trim around the neckline by All That Jazz at $45.99, and a gray pinstripe rayon and polyester jumper sold with a white rayon and acetate ruffle blouse at $62.95 by Xtrmz. Other resources included Dawn Jay Fashions and Irresistible.
Rayon floral dresses were on a rounder marked "Special Purchase" at $29.99 for short styles and $39.99 for longer styles. Another rounder had a broad mix of dresses, from plain fit-and-flares to older-looking large floral print numbers, on clearance at 20 percent off.
More fashionable looks included a variety of short fit-and-flare cotton knit dresses in prints and plaids by Energie, reduced from $17.99 to $14.99. A sunflower print rayon baby-doll dress by Studio A was $19.99, and a long floral rayon slipdress, sold with a cream cotton T-shirt by All That Jazz, was $42.99. A one-piece vest dress with a broomstick skirt by All That Jazz was $54.99.
Ward's had no displays in the department, and the lighting level throughout the store seemed uncomfortably dim. It was also the only store of the three visited not to have a sales associate posted close to the fitting rooms.

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