By  on June 1, 1994

WASHINGTON -- Retailers were upbeat about business in general for the second half and positive about apparel in particular at the annual International Mass Retail Association convention here last week.

Some executives said they are giving increased space to apparel in their store renovations. Dresses, although still an infant category in the mass market, have done surprisingly well this spring in an arena better known for its emphasis on casual basics and commodities. T-shirts and denim shorts were not left behind, however, and were also cited as strong performers.

Many executives reported that the first quarter was solid, and while cooler temperatures chilled sales in late April and early May, they were hopeful that more temperate weather would translate into increased sales.

"Everything we see points to women's wear getting better this year," said Donald G. Soderquist, vice chairman and chief operating officer of Wal-Mart and chairman of IMRA, whose convention was at the Sheraton Washington Hotel.

Lagging apparel sales were partly to blame for a disappointing first quarter for the giant discounter, which reported earnings up 10.6 percent and sales up 27.1 percent. While respectable, the figures were below Wall Street expectations.

Soderquist added that the company's ventures in Mexico were doing well, and that Mexico is a logical stepping stone to Central and South America, particularly as Wal-Mart gains more expertise with the Hispanic population.

As for China, where Wal-Mart chairman S. Robson Walton recently explored the possibility of opening stores, Soderquist said it is a "very new and different market," and added that the company needs to do more research before considering units there.

"We expect our Canadian business to do really well," he said, referring to Wal-Mart's acquisition this year of Woolworth's Woolco operations there. "But there are a lot of big companies that have huge operations in other countries. We're still pups in the international business."

Marc Balmuth, president of Caldor Corp., Norwalk, Conn., said the first quarter was good, but the past few weeks were "a little difficult."

"The dress business has been very strong," he said, citing rayon fit-and-flare, vintage and palazzo styles as leading the pack.

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