Byline: Mark Tosh

NEW YORK--Despite the popularity of women's apparel as a gift item this year, women's specialty stores are in the midst of a ho-hum holiday.
According to some industry estimates, sales at women's specialty stores are running from flat to down more than 2 percent against year-ago results.
And this is a season when apparel becomes more popular as Christmas grows nearer. Apparel was the top gift choice for 63 percent of the respondents to a Deloitte & Touche survey last weekend. This figure reflects a sharp climb in apparel's appeal since November, when 40 percent of shoppers surveyed listed apparel as their preferred gift for the holiday season.
Department stores appear to be reaping this added apparel business, according to some analysts. They are expected to add 6 to 7 percent to apparel sales compared with last year, according to some estimates.
In some urban areas, the spread between department stores and women's specialty shops could be even wider.
Analysts cite the heavy promoting this season as one of the factors driving department store sales. Some retailers have called it the heaviest promotional Christmas ever.
Other reasons cited by analysts for the strong performance by department stores and national chains such as Sears, Roebuck & Co. and J.C. Penney Co. include
Aggressive retailing in power centers featuring category-killer outlets like The Sports Authority and Incredible Universe, which draws business away from regional malls.
Heavy advertising by department stores, while specialty stores often depend on mall locations to draw traffic. A year ago, department stores and specialty stores spent about $2.6 billion on holiday advertising and, although 1994 figures are not available, experts believe that total will be easily surpassed this season.
Cross-shopping between the department store and mall anchors and specialty shops inside the mall also is down this year.
Department stores typically do better at Christmas because they carry broader assortments, provide consumers with more options for merchandise exchanges and take a more promotional stance. For example, many retailers began promotions soon after Thanksgiving and continued trimming prices through the season.
"If anybody is doing business, it's the department stores--not the women's specialty stores," according to Ike Lagnado, of Tactical Retail Solutions.
Lagnado estimated that women's specialty stores would finish the holiday season with a 2.2 percent decline in same-store sales, while department stores achieve a 6.5 percent increase in apparel sales.
"Overall, it isn't a vintage Christmas really anywhere in the country," he said.
Irwin Cohen, co-chairman of Deloitte & Touche's retail and distribution services group, said he believes the department stores' success this season also is cutting into discounters' share of holiday sales.
"I think the department stores--with lower price points to make merchandise more readily available to value-conscious consumers--are doing a better job."
Marie Beninati, director of retail market strategy for the management consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates, said she believes the narrow focus of speciality stores can play against the specialty retail sector.
"When it comes to gift-giving, a specialty store's focus does not allow for enough choice and variety for the consumer," she said. "That's an important point when you're shopping for a gift."
In its 1994 national holiday study, management consulting firm KSA projected that 32 percent, of consumers would purchase gifts at department stores, including Sears and J.C. Penney. Apparel speciality chains were favored by 8 percent of holiday shoppers, according to the study.
"At this point, my best guess is that those numbers are going to ring true," Beninati said.
According to a survey of 85 malls by the International Council of Shopping Centers, men's and women's speciality stores are reporting sales just slightly ahead of the year-ago pace. The survey found a 2.6 sales increase for the mall specialty stores, but up to 2 percent of the increase was attributed to an extra shopping day this season.
Mark J. Schoifet, an ICSC spokesman, said even flat sales at mall specialty apparel stores would be an improvement. Through October, comparable-store sales at mall apparel speciality shops had declined about 4 percent compared with the same 10-month period of 1993, he said.
Schoifet said operational improvements by department stores are cutting into the specialty store sales.
"Department stores are doing an excellent job with one-day promotions," he said. "They can compete on price better."

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