As the temperatures plummet, coat sales are hittingthe heights, while warm, stylish looks take to the streets.

NEW YORK — There’s nothing like a blast of arctic air to bring women into stores to buy a new coat.

With outerwear no longer the destination purchase it once was, stores across the country have revived the category with more lightweight, casual items. This month’s chilly temperatures and last week’s snowstorm in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states were welcome weather for the outerwear industry, which has been plagued by mild winters in recent years.

Last year, coat sales dropped sharply, due to the combined forces of Sept. 11’s effect on the consumer psyche and record-high temperatures across the country. Outerwear sales were off 14 percent in 2001 to $4.3 billion.

Even though winter doesn’t officially get under way until Dec. 22, stores across the country are experiencing robust outerwear sales, with peacoats, shearlings, down coats and shorter-length styles leading the way.

"A coat man’s dream came true last week," said Monroe Milstein, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Burlington Coat Factory. That meant 200,000 coats, which is what the 300-unit chain sold last week. And the wintery fairy tale isn’t showing any signs of letting up.

"The real growth in the business has been in soccer-mom or weekend styles that you wear for rain or warmth — something to throw on as you go out the door," said Terry Thornton, associate divisional merchandise manager at Neiman Marcus. "That’s up well into the double digits. The weakest link has been more conservative fine-cashmere coats."

At Barneys New York, women aren’t afraid to show some pizazz with their outerwear. Topping their lists are Ann Louise Roswald’s wool floral-print coat, Martin Grant’s loden leather trench, Marc Jacobs’ pastel wool bouclé coat with silver button detail, Barneys New York Collection’s pale green coat and Viktor & Rolf’s white mohair trench with large buttons. Private label peacoats, as well as versions from Grant and Chaiken, have also been strong.

"Women are buying coats as statements," said Judy Collinson, executive vice president and general merchandise manager for women’s merchandising at Barneys. "The coat is not a basic weather-prompted purchase. The coat is what makes a look. Women want coats that have style, humor, color, strong statement. Actually, sometimes you can get away with a lot — at least something very simple — if you pull on a great coat. And there are so many right now."Henri Bendel is on track to post a 12 percent gain in coat sales this year, according to fashion director Anna Garner. As for trends, athletic-inspired coats in fitted silhouettes, such as Moncler’s $475 puffy jackets and Burberry’s $380 quilted number, are popular. "Early in the season, shoppers are very certain about what they want," Garner said. "Now, there is a sense of practicality, when the weather gets biting cold. There’s the added warmth factor."

To drum up coat sales earlier this fall, Bendel’s staged a special event for shearlings in its first-floor gazebo to kick off the season in July. Whipstitched, embroidered shearlings with a luxury feel rather than a folksy, ethnic one have been important, said Garner, adding that one $1,998 style from Plein Sud with raw edges has been a standout.

Searle’s outerwear sales have been so strong in recent weeks that David Lazar, director of retail, said he has been reminded "how formidable of a force outerwear can be when the weather is right. The dollars add up very nicely when you sell outerwear."

While outerwear continues to be key for Searle, the company has upped sportswear offerings in its own stores in the past year or so. Running an ad last week in the front section of The New York Times helped drum up interest in coats, Lazar said. Outerwear ranges from $400 to $4,000, with lightweight down jackets and shearlings being popular.

"What we’ve found is it’s not about price," he said. "When we bring in coats in the morning, we see a response by noon or 1 p.m."

Once the thermometer dipped last week, outerwear sales were "very strong," and Searle expects its outerwear business to increase by a mid-double-digit percentage gain, Lazar said.

Business also picked up last week at Burlington Coat Factory, where "even the mediocre stuff became stars last week," Milstein said. Sales of wool and longer-length coats, which many consumers abandoned due to recent mild winters, have rebounded, and down, corduroy and denim coats continue to be key. First Down, Zero Exposure and Steve Madden are bestsellers for the sportier styles that retail between $49 and $59.Shoppers aren’t showing any signs of holiday cheer in terms of color and continue to favor safe tones like black, camel, navy and gray. White was the one exception.

But Thursday’s snowstorm that blanketed the Northeast and knocked out power in North Carolina kept shoppers away from stores, Milstein said.

"Snow is not good for business," he contended. "Stores close and people don’t travel. They’ll only go to the supermarket so they don’t starve."

Stefanie Greenfield, owner of Scoop, said styles that are "not too cumbersome," like Marc by Marc Jacobs peacoats, Katayone Adeli fur-trimmed bomber jackets and Joseph shearling coats, have been bestsellers at her five stores. The sixth store will open next week at 873 Washington St. in New York.

"Outerwear is never going to be an enormous part of our business, but if you bring it in early and bring in novelty, it will sell," she said.

Kenneth Cole’s take on the peacoat — the firm calls it a military felt officer’s coat — is this season’s bestseller. A faux-shearling blazer and a slim-cut wool and cashmere coat are also hits at Kenneth Cole stores, a company spokeswoman said.

Boosted by a burst of cold weather in early November, coats have become one of the brightest spots at Neiman Marcus. Casual short coats, real and faux shearlings and down jackets have been most popular, especially designer versions.

Thornton reasoned that short styles have excelled because they work for active lifestyles, particularly for suburbanites who are frequently climbing in and out of sport utility vehicles and cars.

"That has been a real switch for us," he said. "At this time of year, we have always sold fine cashmere coats and long, 52-inch coats, and that is not where the customer is shopping this year. At our stores in urban locations, such as Chicago or San Francisco, maybe they are wearing longer coats there and we do sell them. But the real growth has come from casual sport."

Burberry is leading that business with two quilted styles trimmed in its signature plaid — a barn jacket and a more fitted version with snaps. Each style is approaching 1,000 units in sales, Thornton said. Neiman’s has also done well with neutral-hued down jackets by Montcler and a long black belted trench from Ramosport.Cinzia Rocca and MaxMara are top performers, with the emphasis on texture, color and the continued popularity of alpaca.

"We’re finding that body-conscious shapes have been more successful than the fuller silhouettes that these companies were famous for," Thornton said. "The customer is moving to a silhouette that is much closer to the body, but it’s not really fitted."

At Elder-Beerman’s 66 stores, coat sales are also strong, due mostly to chilly temperatures. Faux shearling has been the top seller, followed by pastel-hued puffy down jackets for juniors, short wool coats and washable suede jackets. Liz Claiborne and London Fog have been leading resources.

"Last year, we had warm weather past Christmas, so the weather has been a really positive factor in all of our outerwear," said a spokeswoman. "Season-to-date, it is not double digit, but it is noteworthy."

Meanwhile, J.C. Penney Co. is beating plan with sales gains stretching into double digits.

"The colder weather has brought out the more traditional customer," said Steve Berry, buyer for women’s outerwear. "For example, we’ve had strong sales of our Worthington fur-trimmed and untrimmed microfiber jackets."

Down jackets have been top sellers all season, especially sporty styles by Penney’s own Arizona Jean Co. label. Faux shearling has been a fashion leader for the chain, led by styles with long, fur trim. An embroidered suede coat inspired by the one worn by Kate Hudson in the film "Almost Famous" has been a standout, and leather and suede have been checking well since early in the season.

At Rich’s, recent cold weather has helped outerwear sales. Bestsellers have been short wools, activewear styles and suede. While officials noted no change in promotional activity over last year, leather jackets in all lengths and suede with fringe details have been featured in the newspaper as doorbusters and sale items.

Overall, outerwear performed better than plan for Saks Department Store Group for November. At its Parisian division, fashion, fun and novelty have been key to coat sales. Mink-lined Marvin Richards denim jackets at $625 and faux-mink-lined denim jackets at $149 have both been bestsellers. Fur, now in 11 Parisian locations, has done well, including fashion-forward shearling. Novelty styles by Parisian Signature and Relativity have also done well.According to Judy Harshaw, divisional merchandise manager, dresses and coats for Proffitt’s/McRae’s, hot trends in outerwear include the color brown and shades of camel; novelty leathers, with details such as whipstitching; soft lambskin, suede, and faux fur or shearling on denim jackets.

Macy’s West’s coat business slowed down last year because of unseasonably warm weather in the Western region. Coats are selling now, not because the temperatures are any lower, but because fashion details such as faux fur, bell sleeves or embroidery are giving customers a reason to buy.

"Overcoats, worn over denim, are what’s selling," said Robert Mettler, chief executive officer of Macy’s West’s 120 stores.

Faux shearling, denim with faux fur, embroidery and smooth-grain leather are the most popular choices in short, sexy styles, according to coat buyer Mary Nelson.

"Wool is tough, but even there, it’s young and it’s fitted," she said. "And prices dropped this year in wool as more production has gone offshore. It’s not quite the big investment purchase for the consumer that it used to be."

In wool, customers are placing multiple purchases, a practice once unheard of on the temperate West Coast. "They just don’t out here," said Nelson. "That’s new for the West."

At Nordstrom’s 88 full-line stores, leather, washable suede and novelty outerwear with shearling and alpaca accents have been strong across all categories and price points. A company spokeswoman said the popular looks "range from more basic everyday to separates and more novelty looks."

Outerwear from vendors Andrew Marc, Sheri Bodel and Marc by Marc Jacobs, have done especially well, she said.

Leather is pulling its weight at Mervyn’s 264 units, according to a spokeswoman at the Hayward, Calif.-based retailer. Leather is selling in the form of three-quarter-length jackets with either three-button or zip fronts. Mervyn’s private label Hillard & Hanson and the Nine & Co. line, priced between $150 and $200, have been standout sellers.

Fashion-driven items such as denim jackets with faux-fur linings and collars are doing well in juniors. High-performance fabrics, including microfiber reversible rain jackets and fleece from Columbia Sportswear and High Sierra, have raked in solid sales, as well.Lightweight wool coats in black and beige and lightweight tweed, priced in the $60 range, are also moving. "Since it’s still very seasonably warm on the West Coast, we’re really seeing dressier jackets and coats selling," the Mervyn’s spokeswoman said.

That’s not the case in the Midwest, where some Mervyn’s are located. There, she said, "it’s all about down and warmth and keeping the cold out."

Sometimes, less forceful weather is enough of a deterrent for shoppers. At HM Vintage’s area at Sunday’s weekly flea market at Columbus Avenue and 76th Street in Manhattan, owner Carl Mateo described coat sales as "fair," even though there were 75 one-of-a-kind styles from the Forties through the Seventies. After inquiring about the price of a long gray wool coat, one woman gave it a closer look but declined to try it on. "It’s too cold," she laughed.

Known for its tops, especially customized ones, HM Vintage attributes 50 percent of its sales to designers and other fashion industry people, said Mateo, who owns the business with his wife, Sharon Broit. With the weather shaping up to be a heavy-duty winter, shoppers may reacquaint themselves with outerwear. Women in their 20s, for example, are inspired by the flare and silhouettes of the vintage coats, since the style is new to them, Broit said. They also can make a statement affordably, since coats retail from $40 to $220.

"When you sell things that are one-of-a-kind, it requires attention and you have to have the energy to take it in," Mateo said. "Our idea is we’re selling style and it’s a unique personal style."

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