PINEHURST, N.C. — If any of the textile and apparel executives at last week’s Cotton Incorporated Denim & Casual Bottomswear Conference were hitting slices and hooks on the historic Pinehurst golf course, they had an excuse.

Rather than steadily building since July, retail activity during the critical back-to-school season has been spotty, leaving denim and jeans executives worried about fall. The nervousness seemed just enough to interfere with their concentration out on the greens.

"The b-t-s rush has not happened as of yet," said Keith Hull, president of marketing and sales at Avondale Mills, Graniteville, S.C. "The retail pull has not been as strong as we’d like it to be."

Hull said business was still "OK, probably not as good as it was," but he expressed confidence that fall jeans would ultimately turn out solid, "unless the consumer just goes to sleep altogether."

Gordon Harton, president of Lee Co. of Merriam, Kan., agreed: "The first few weeks of b-t-s were a little bit slower than we expected."

However, he said sales were improving as the season has progressed, which he attributed to an ongoing shift in consumer behavior: "As usual, the shift to buying closer to need is taking place."

A positive sign, executives noted, was that, since fall, retailers have been keeping inventories low, out of concern that consumer buying will fall off. The result would be that a modest slowdown in buying won’t necessarily mean an immediate cutoff in orders or provoke huge markdowns.

"That is one of the reasons business has been improved," said Harton. "They brought the goods in later, so inventories are still low."

For his part, Mike Moody, executive vice president and general product manager for apparel with Greensboro, N.C.-based Burlington Industries, said: "B-t-s has become a misnomer because [consumers are] still wearing their shorts at this time of year. Obviously, it’s somewhat important, but not as much as it was."

Jack Matthews, vice president of sales and marketing at American Cotton Growers of Lubbock, Tex., a denim mill owned by the Plains Cotton Cooperative Association, agreed that tight inventory management by retailers has kept the business more stable."They know what’s happening as soon as it happens," he said. "It used to be you’d have three months of inventory hangover after a slowdown. No longer."

John Heldrich, president of Atlanta-based Swift Denim, a division of Galey & Lord Inc., said he believes that strong retail presentation of denim styles and more detailed explanations of the more subtle washes and treatments that are a key part of retail assortments this season should keep consumers interested in jeans.

"The washes are a little more understandable and mainstreamed, but still differentiated," Heldrich said. "They are explained well at retail now. The consumer is understanding it a little bit more. The presentation at retail is very strong."

In keeping with his normal practice, Heldrich wore jeans throughout the meeting, even though the 107-year-old resort’s dress code declared them off limits. Many of his compatriots made a similar sartorial statement. Lee’s Harton declared, "They said business-casual. For me, this is business-casual."

Jim Martin, president of apparel fabrics with Danville, Va.-based Dan River Inc., suggested that the current focus on keeping retail inventories low worked out to the advantage of local manufacturers, who can ship orders to U.S. distribution centers in less time than their competitors overseas.

"That helps me," he said of low retail inventories. "No question about it, especially on value-added products, which are the sort of things they do not want to take a risk on. So they hold off, and when they need it, they need it quickly."

While many of the conference attendees were talking about jeans and teens, some of the speakers warned that the denim market might be in for a slowdown after several strong seasons. They also suggested that apparel marketers pay more attention to older shoppers and the growing mass market.

Art Spar, chairman of STS Market Research, based in Cambridge, Mass., suggested denim’s long run in the fashion spotlight might have left consumers ready for a different look.

"Women are switching to slacks," Spar said. "They’re coming off a jeans-buying binge in 2001."He noted that women outspent men on jeans last year — a reversal of the historical trend — and called that a sign that women’s closets may be running out of room for more denim.

As reported, STS last week released a study based on its consumer polls showing an increased number of women shoppers in the first quarter bought casual pants, while fewer bought jeans.

The rising popularity of slacks could improve apparel sales to older shoppers, Spar suggested at the three-day conference that ended Aug. 14, noting that purchasing of casual pants does not fall off with age, as does jeans purchasing.

Judy Russell, president of consulting firm Markethink, suggested that apparel marketers would be wise to focus less of their energy on teens, given that the population of teens in the U.S. is likely to decline over the coming decade, as the children of baby boomers grow out of their teens.

She said that, in recent years, marketers have lost sight of the aging baby boomers themselves, who continue to spend large amounts of money on consumer goods.

Mark Messura, vice president of strategic planning at Cary, N.C.-based Cotton Inc., noted the average age of jeans shoppers at the department store, chain store and specialty store segments has declined over the past decades, while the average age of jeans shoppers at the mass merchants has risen, from 37.3 in 1991 to 40.5 in 2001.

Mass merchants’ appeal to middle-aged consumers may be one of the reasons for the sector’s strong growth in recent years, speakers suggested.

"Many consumers give up higher-priced mall-based stores and choose the convenience of strip malls and discounters" as they age, said Spar of STS, who noted that shoppers tend to shift most of their apparel buying to mass merchants at the ages of 35 to 49.

Bill Compton, chairman and chief executive officer of Tampa-based Tropical Sportswear International, contended that many apparel companies don’t aggressively try to sell mass merchants because of their need for low-price, low-margin goods. He urged those vendors to recognize that mass merchants tend not to be as aggressive in their markdowns as department stores."At Wal-Mart, I at least know the price I come in at as the price I go out at," he said. "I can’t say that about department stores."

Samantha Skey, vice president of sales and marketing at market-research firm Alloy Inc., based in New York, said the appeal of the teen market to apparel companies is in the numbers. She said Alloy has found that teens spend about $161 billion on consumer goods and services a year, with $36.7 billion, or 22.8 percent of the total, going for clothing and jewelry.

By comparison, average Americans across all age groups today spend about 4.3 percent of their disposable income on apparel, shoes and jewelry, said Markethink’s Russell. That compares with 7 percent of their disposable income in the Seventies.

That decline is a result of increased spending on new categories of consumer products, like electronics, that didn’t exist 30 years ago.

Decreasing spending on apparel is encouraging strong deflation in the market, Spar noted. He said STS research showed that in the first quarter of 2002, spending by U.S. consumers 13 and older on sportswear was $14.6 billion, down from $14.7 billion a year earlier. Over the same period, the number of items purchased rose from 624 million to 722 million. That translates to an decline in average unit price from $23.56 to $20.22.

For the rest of the year, he said: "With a weak economy, with an oversupply of retail space…we expect that the apparel business will be extremely promotional."

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