NEW YORK — Given that the outerwear sector was among the hardest hit apparel categories during last year’s retail slump, retailers are taking a different tack with regards to buying and merchandising outerwear this fall.Stunned by a one-two punch of unseasonably warm weather in key regions and the consumer malaise that set in after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, outerwear sales fell 14 percent in 2001 to $4.3 billion, according to market research firm NPD Group.At Henri Bendel, vice president and general manager Ed Burstell said, “We have two different customers — one that shops the outerwear department as a destination and one who looks for outerwear within collections.”He sees the latter grouping as the sector that is growing, “so our real emphasis is going to be on the increased presence of outerwear within each one of those [designer sportswear or ready-to-wear] buys.”The destination outerwear section will be located on the fourth floor of Bendel’s, while the coats within collections will be dispersed throughout the designer and rtw areas on the second and third floors.Bendel’s has bought into outerwear styles such as bomber jackets, shearlings, leathers and belted trenches, but with novelty influences like distressed leather and rabbit fur.“Because of our size, we can’t compete with a traditional coat department,” Burstell said. “We can never use the word basic here.”The store is also showcasing a group of leathers, suedes and shearlings in the gazebo shop on its first floor at the end of July along with an outerwear window.“We wanted to do something a little different so we could get a read from our customers on what the key items are going to be going forward, and we’ll reorder into those,” he added.Saks Fifth Avenue is also making changes by expanding its outerwear offerings and creating a designer coat department.“We’re trying to dress that woman who wears designer clothes like Jil Sander and Chanel,” said Linda DeFrances, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Saks. “If she doesn’t buy coats within those collections, she may have very little choices out there. So we feel like we’re filling a void for that woman.”The retailer is also developing a contemporary outerwear department. Elizabeth Kanfer, junior market editor, said, “We saw the need for a novelty coat wardrobe.”The department will focus on outerwear trends such as distressed leathers, fantasy furs, trenches, bombers and embellished coats. At specialty chain Scoop, co-owner Stefani Greenfield was so impressed with the outerwear selections that she bought more outerwear for fall than last year.“At least 10 percent of the buy was outerwear, which is high for me,” said Greenfield.She focused on parkas, bombers and shearlings from Marc Jacobs, Katayone Adeli and Scoop’s own private label.So far, the early outerwear business has been brisk and Greenfield anticipates that will continue.“I have a lot of outerwear in already and my coats are one of my best-selling items for fall,” said Greenfield, who has already sold 50 percent of her Marc Jacobs coats.Burlington Coat Factory’s chief executive officer, president and chairman, Monroe Milstein, said while it’s too early to tell how the sector will fare this fall, early sales have been encouraging.“We’re prepared with as many coats this year as last year, and we’re buying new styles and whatever sold well last year,” Milstein said.Top styles include shearlings and down jackets.“We don’t think it’s a high-tech business,” said Milstein. “If you had something good, you sell it again.”Neiman Marcus plans to spotlight outerwear with a 12-page, early fall, direct- mail folio that plays up coat trends.It’s the first time Neiman’s has done an outerwear mailer devoted entirely to coats, according to Terry Thornton, associate divisional merchandise manager at Neiman Marcus. The mailer will begin arriving in select mailboxes in late September or early October.“We’re definitely planning a sales increase for outerwear,” said Thornton. “We have a very focused point of view for fall outerwear. We’re focusing on key category and trend items that are novel and interesting. We’re not merchandising so much by need, but by want and desire. If you merchandise by need and it doesn’t get cold, you’ve got the wrong inventory.”Among the styles at Neiman’s will be:Shearlings from Vakko, Andrew Marc, Henry Beguelin and Jekel of Paris.Vests, especially those with utilitarian or equestrian styling, from Montcler and Loro Piana.Burberry’s classic interpretations.Anoraks such as Michael Kors’ denim number that’s lined with coyote fur.Peacoats from Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Max Mara.J.C. Penney Co. plans to play up fashion to boost outerwear sales, said Tami Wolfe, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for women’s apparel.“We are very optimistic about outerwear for fall,” Wolfe said. “Weather may be an issue as always, but we feel offering a fashion mix of outerwear is the right approach. We are very encouraged about early selling on suede and retro looks, and Columbia active outerwear is off to a strong start.”Elder-Beerman, the 66-unit moderate department store chain based in Dayton, Ohio, plans to open washable suede boutiques in its outerwear departments at 26 stores this fall, said George Hedge, outerwear buyer, noting that all Elder-Beerman stores will carry some washable suede styles.Elder-Beerman kicks off outerwear in September and plans to stretch the business through transition to capture late-season business.If there’s one unifying trend in outerwear among West Coast retailers, temperate weather in the region or not, it’s fake shearling.“In general we’re optimistic, particularly because the coat market looks so terrific,” said Anne Spangenberg, divisional merchandise manager of Macy’s West, based in San Francisco. “There’s freshness and newness like pintucking and shaping that wasn’t there before.”Aside from fake shearling, Macy’s West is banking on embroidered looks and denim coats.Demand left over from a disappointing sales period last year will initially drive customers to the stores, according to Spangenberg, but she believes consumers will ultimately treat their purchases of outerwear as they do ready-to-wear, based on fashion.“There’s just an amazing amount of trend-right fashion out there,” she said. “There are lots of reasons to drive the customer to make multiple purchases.”Mervyn’s is focusing on several areas to reach its outerwear customer. “I’ve really got to have something new and fun, a reason for her to come in the door,” said Erika Westbrook, trend manager for ready-to-wear and juniors for the Hayward, Calif.-based chain.The retailer plans to update basic coats in camel, burgundy and brown, colors the chain is hoping will make the outerwear floor “pop.” Mervyn’s will also offer consumers new lengths, be it the knee-length topper coat or blazers that are fitted and shorter.“We’ll do [blazers] in leather and in a wool men’s wear pattern,” said Westbrook.Mervyn’s is betting on textured fabrics, specifically fake shearling, suede, corduroy and velour, to give customers a tactile experience. More fashion in the basic coat business will take the form of a duffle or a peacoat.“It’s got to be more novel than a three-button jacket,” Westbrook said.Finally, dual-function outerwear in the activewear category, such as jackets with zip-off sleeves, is expected to be strong. Light blue, yellow, pink and silver will be the key colors in the category.“Here, the influence will be more feminine and fun fashion,” said Westbrook. “It’s really being driven by the snowboard market.”In Mervyn’s ads this fall, outerwear will be shown alongside rtw and sportswear. Like Macy’s West, the chain is hoping customers will make multiple purchases based on fashion needs, not utilitarian purposes.“We really made sure we tied outerwear to the overall big fashion trends,” said Westbrook.