By  on June 28, 2007

DRESSES ARE ON A ROLL, AND DEPARTMENT STORES ARE THE dominant spots to buy them, according to 40 percent of women surveyed by WWD.

In the past year or so, more sportswear labels have gotten into the dress business as the category has become more of a mainstay in women's wardrobes, especially younger ones, who until now have favored more casual looks like designer jeans paired with little jackets.

While 38 percent of all the survey's respondents said they purchased a dress, suit or evening item in the past year, the figure shot up to 48 percent of those in the 18-to-34 age range.

The fact that department stores have designated areas for dresses, suits and eveningwear is an advantage for shoppers looking for a selection all in one place. Specialty stores, chosen by 17 percent of the women surveyed as the channel shopped most often for the category, are more inclined to merchandise dresses, suits and eveningwear by specific designers. Discounters picked up 7 percent of the dress, suit and eveningwear business, with Internet and catalogue sales each taking 7 percent.

By far, dresses have been the key apparel category for several seasons and are showing no signs of slowing down. Retailers have chalked up the interest to a renewed focus on a more polished look. Whether shoppers' ongoing interest in dresses is being spurred by simplicity or postfeminism values is open to debate among retailers, but they agree the category will remain robust through fall and even into next spring. And as dress sales boom, they are boosting growth in other categories, from leggings for fall to key accessories such as shoes and belts.

Dress sales generated $5.06 billion at retail for the 12-month period ended April 30, up 30 percent from the $3.88 billion the prior year, according to The NPD Group Inc., the Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm.

Reflecting a 9 percent hike, 31 percent of this year's respondents said they regularly shop at Macy's for dresses, suits and eveningwear, compared with the 22 percent who chose the chain in last year's survey. The nationwide rollout of the Macy's nameplate by Macy's Inc., (once Federated Department Stores Inc.) could account for some of this growth, as well as the wide selection that is a key component of Macy's offerings. Lauren by Ralph Lauren, T Tahari, Jones New York, Betsey Johnson and Evan-Picone are among the many dress labels. For suits, there are such options as Kenneth Cole Reaction, Larry Levine and Tahari by ASL. Macy's eveningwear resources include Froxx and A.B.S. by Allen Schwartz. In general, consumers across the board have more options for evening since shorter-length dresses have gained popularity for nighttime occasions.J.C. Penney Co. Inc. ran a close second with 30 percent of those polled saying that is where they go regularly for dresses, suits and eveningwear, a 2 percent gain compared with the 2006 survey. Kohl's picked up the number-three slot, with 19 percent saying that's where they shop regularly — a slight increase compared with 2006.

Both chains have been adding brands to their assortments. Nicole by Nicole Miller, a diffusion collection by the designer, has helped Penney's raise its fashion quotient. The chain also offers a greater variety of suiting options instead of just standard styles, which is more in sync with the way women dress today.

Among other stores cited as regular shopping destinations, Dillard's wound up fourth with 13 percent, 8 percent said they are regulars at TJ Maxx and another 8 percent picked Nordstrom. Wal-Mart, which dominates in most other apparel categories, captured 7 percent for dresses, suits and eveningwear.

When respondents were asked to single out the one store they shop most often for dresses, suits and eveningwear, Macy's topped the list again with 16 percent. Penney's was a close second with 15 percent, Kohl's wound up third with an 8 percent representation and Dillard's finished fourth with 6 percent.

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