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Lack of Hot Items Dampens Spring

A lack of key “must-have” items or trends, chilly temperatures, job insecurity, high unemployment and war worries all took a toll on spring retail.

NEW YORK — The movie title, “She’s Gotta Have It,” doesn’t apply to consumers this spring.

A lack of key “must-have” items or trends, temperatures below normal, job insecurity, high unemployment and worries over the war in Iraq have all taken their toll on the spring season.

As reported, April’s same-store sales were disappointing at retailers such as Saks Inc., Federated, J.C. Penney Co., The May Department Stores Co. and Wet Seal, while stores such as Target, Hot Topic, Pacific Sunwear, Express and Chico’s had sales increases.

Despite what seems to be a dearth of hot spring trends, several high-end retailers said their fashion customers are gravitating toward color and prints that they haven’t had in their wardrobes for several seasons, as well as miniskirts. Cargo pants also are selling briskly, especially at the junior chains. In general, novelty items have outsold basics across-the-board. While spring has been slow in getting started, stores believe the action has picked up this month.

“If there were more must-haves, it would be a better season, but color and prints are selling,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president and fashion director at Bloomingdale’s.

“It’s totally true. There wasn’t a must-have item. I saw it at holiday and again in the spring. When I walked into the stores this spring, I saw the peasant blouse all over again,” said Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPDFashionworld, the Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm.

“It’s scary when jeans are still the hot story for the past two years. The car industry, which changes its models every two-and-a-half years, is turning at a faster pace than the fashion business,” added Cohen.

David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group, the buying office here, described the difficulties with the current trends: “One of the problems is the two big newsy and exciting things this season are the miniskirt, which is impossible for some women to wear — some women are passing on it who might have bought it in 1966 — and the other big story is prints, although they’re so subjective. And some people think they make them look fat.”

Still, he noted that when something new happens in print or color, retailers generally focus on the top. “Prints are an impulse buy and it’s very good for the business,” he said.

Years ago, big trends defined a season, but now it’s not so simple, said Wolfe.

“What it’s telling me is people have gotten over minimalism. We’re in a time of embellishment and detail. We want more visual bang for our buck. People have a full closet of plain stuff, and will go on wearing it and won’t buy more of it. People are wearing things for longer periods of time. There’s not that pressure. No one feels they have to wear a certain thing,” he observed.

The difficult season has consequently turned highly promotional — just as the last three seasons have been.

Several retailers, publicly and privately, bemoaned the fact that Saks Fifth Avenue jumped the gun and held its annual one-night sale (4 to 8 p.m.) on May 1 for special customers where a lot of the merchandise was promoted at 40 percent off. Stores believe it was a slap in the face to those trying to do a full-price business. Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising and communication at Saks Fifth Avenue, said all the Saks stores run this sale every spring for its Saks First customers from 4 to 8 p.m. on selected items.

“That’s how they have trained their customer to do business,” said Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of Jeffreys. “I don’t compete with them. The regular-priced fashion-oriented consumers don’t shop those sales and have already bought. It degrades the stores that sell high-end merchandise. They’re stepping on their own foot.

“I just ignore it. If I was an executive at another major store, and the direct competition with that store was doing it, I’d go crazy. Because I’m not, I feel sorry for the store that has to operate like that,” added Kalinsky.

“There should be a law that sales don’t happen until June,” said Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York. “Some customers are ‘wear-now’ customers and they’re trained to wait for the sales.” She said a store like Saks is sending out a message that “the sale is just around the corner, but on the other hand, they have to make their figures.” She feel stores should work together to avoid this.

Despite her criticism of Saks, Gilhart described the season as challenging.

“Spring is such a sensitive time of year. Designers are under a lot of pressure to produce quickly, and we were in a war. The consumer confidence was a little eerie,” said Gilhart. “In the April we were having snow, and in May, it’s freezing outside. I’m amazed how well we did this season despite all the hurdles we had to go over.”

Gilhart said the Barneys customer always seeks out whatever’s “new.”

“People want new things. A new designer, a new thing you haven’t had before, a new detail, any designer you’ve never seen before. New also feels special, and a little more selective in a way. It’s like buying custom. If it’s new, you’re one of the first people to get it and for a discriminating fashion customer, that’s very important.”

Gilhart said Barneys has done well with several of its new lines, such as Proenza Schouler, Behnaz Sarafpour, Lanvin and Zac Posen. In addition, the store has been doing well with its denim lines for several years. “Denim is still really strong, and it is for fall too,” she said, even though there are signs the fabric is losing steam at the middle and mass ends of the market. “The spring lines were a little bit different, in the details; they were more subtle, chicer and sophisticated.”

Gilhart said Barneys has sold a lot of cargo pants, which weren’t a big item last spring, as well as fashion shoes and handbags, novelty knits and miniskirts “wherever they are — denim, printed fabric, Barneys private label. It’s such a good summer item. It’s something new and it’s sexy.”

“If I were to define the season, I think color is getting people into the stores, especially in ready-to-wear, shoes and handbags,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director, citing Marc Jacobs’ colorful handbags. He said the spring season has been “very solid” so far.

“We’ve also had very strong selling of color from everything from Etro to pastels from McQueen, Valentino and Chanel. Things that are not unique or special are particularly difficult. With everything going on economically and politically, a shot of color has appealed to them [consumers]. Calvin’s and Donna’s collections have been extremely good collections for us. It’s a feminine moment for us,” he said. He said that Donna Karan’s polka dot dresses and Calvin Klein’s jersey prints are selling well.

Among the bestsellers at the store are skirts and dresses in florals and prints, and dresses that “emphasize the waist.” Colorful footwear is another strong category, especially those by Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo and Dior.

“When it’s uncertain times, people are more selective in what they purchase. They’ll buy key looks or statement pieces,” said Burke.

Another strategy to bring consumers into the store is store events, such as those for hat designer Phillip Treacy and Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley, as well as trunk shows. “We pushed our Versace and Narciso Rodriguez trunk shows. For us, you bring customers in for a trunk show, and they inevitably buy stock as well,” said Burke.

Bloomingdale’s is enticing consumers by tieing into movies like “Down With Love,” starring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, featuring it in both its windows and a department on the third floor. “We’re tieing in with movies and having clothes made inspired by films,” said Ruttenstein.

“Now that the weather is nice, business is starting to pick up. Designer handbags are doing very well, and accessories, in general, are doing very well,” he said, adding miniskirts also are strong for the store.

Saks’ Lividini said that every season the retailer creates a Short List of “must-haves” for the season that it put in its catalog. This year’s list includes the miniskirt, novelty pants and the trenchcoat.

“It’s all about differentiated product. In the customer’s vocabulary, it’s about something new that’s not in her closet already. It excites them. Anything novelty is doing well, whether it be color, silhouette, embellishment or detail,” she said, also pointing to footwear and handbags as key buys for consumers at a time when the economy is challenging.

While the Saks Department Store Group’s sales in April were off 9.1 percent, sales at the luxury Saks Fifth Avenue unit increased 6.3 percent for the month. The gain was attributed to shifting a scheduled promotional event from May last year into April this year, according to the company. The company cited the continued weak economic environment and the persistence of below-normal temperatures that adversely affected sales across many of Saks’ markets. The intensity of promotional activity was increased at both Saks department stores and Saks Fifth Avenue units in an attempt to stimulate sales, the company said.

Categories with the best sales performances for Saks Fifth Avenue in April were women’s designer apparel, men’s apparel and furnishings, women’s contemporary sportswear, cosmetics, shoes, handbags and fine jewelry. The softest were private brand women’s apparel, intimate apparel, “soft accessories,” fashion jewelry and Off 5th.

“You have to have a focus, and for us, it’s dresses, color and print,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president, fashion director at Neiman Marcus. She cited such looks as Prada’s navy and white print Chinese dress, Gucci’s pink satin dress, Missoni’s knit halter top and skirt, and Bluemarine’s floral halter top and skirt as all selling very well.

“It’s color and reaction to color. Everyone’s had a horrible winter and all sorts of snow. We’re responding to having warm weather. It’s definitely novelty that’s selling,” said Kaner.

“Dresses are key,” she added, citing a bicolor dress by Narciso Rodriguez. “Miniskirts have been selling all along in more casual styles, including cargo skirts, and pants, such as cropped pants by Piazza Sempione continue to be hot sellers.”

As far as best-selling accessories, Kaner said: “It’s still handbags. The designer handbags are selling and shoes have suddenly picked up. Open sandals, from flat to quite high heels, and ankle wraps, are all doing well.”

Ed Burstell, vice president and general merchandise manager of Henri Bendel, agreed that color is the big draw this season.

“Number one was color, and it was across-the-board in ready-to-wear, designer and accessories. The biggest disappointment was black-and-white, which may do well in the fall. It didn’t sell quite as well as we hoped,” said Burstell. He noted that Pucci head scarves and novelty totes have been strong sellers. “We’ve done a huge earring business, with chandelier styles,” said Burstell.

“Diane Von Furstenberg has been phenomenal this spring, and has been consistent every single delivery. The Anna Sui business has really turned on, and all the key items, such as cargo pants in cropped looks and satin have sold well, as well as terry cloth hoodies.”

Burstell also said he is doing very well in the New Creators Department, with lines such as Luella, Daryl K, Rick Owens and Matthew Williamson. “When you put it all together, we’re running a low-single-digit increase,” he said.

“When we saw it could be an ‘iffy’ season, we layered on more promotional [event] activity. Floor by floor, we saw we could do more this spring and had more in-store activities,” said Burstell. The store hosts “Girls’ Nites at Bendels,” offering lifestyle workshops and shopping, which are always sold out.

As for key looks, Burstell also pinpointed the miniskirt. “It was bought by all ages and vendors, from Mary Quant in the ready-to-wear department to Anna Molinari. The proportions have changed. Everyone has had enough of the midriff. They want to show their legs.”

Paul Raffin, executive vice president of merchandising at Express, said the chain anticipated there would be pent-up consumer demand because of the economy and political environment, so it switched its assortment into a more casual mix. “It was beach and surf inspired with terry separates and other knit fabrics with interlocks. We had a tremendous color palette and lots of graphic prints and athleisure details. It picks up a ‘Juicy Couture’ kind of influence,” he said.

“They want clothes that make them happy and they feel good. Clothes that are soft, colorful and easy to wear, not so hard-edged,” said Raffin. He said bra tanks and mini-Ts are selling very well for Express. “We’re not in a huge print trend right now, but selectively. It evokes a sense of fantasy and surf inspiration. It’s a lifestyle we can all aspire to.”

The Express division was up 5 percent in same-store sales in April, against a record-breaking season last year, said Raffin, adding, “We feel that there’s momentum building, and we’re looking forward to the second quarter that will be even better.”

Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of Scoop, said her business is performing strongly and that, despite economic factors, “women don’t lose their desire to shop. Their ability to spend is different, and we’re keying into the great items. This spring, the miniskirts are new, as well as Joie sating cargo pants and some“great new trouser denim styles.”

She said the key is to make the customer excited, “as if they’re a kid in a candy store. They don’t want to walk into these stores where everything’s marked down. It’s not about the price. You have to have an element of fantasy.”

When a customer walks into Scoop, she gets hit by color. Prints are doing well, especially those by Diane Von Furstenberg and Just Cavalli, said Greenfield.

Kalinsky of Jeffreys, said: “All in all, it’s been a good season, certainly good enough. At this point, spring is about done, and in a month, we’re getting in high gear to sell fall. If the consumer hasn’t bought a new shoe, or a new handbag or a new outfit, she’s not going to look current. We sold color very well, and prints very well, especially from Pucci and Marni. We sold shoes unbelievably well, the best-selling styles are mules and sandals. Silver was one trend in shoes and accessories, and colors and prints were important.

“I had a good spring. I feel very fortunate,” said Kalinsky.

In April, Pacific Sunwear of California posted a 16.9 percent increase in same-store sales, driven by the junior business. And teens are picking up armloads of this season’s uniform, Dickies capris paired with short-sleeved fitted T-shirts, according to Debbie Shinn, the Anaheim, Calif.-based retailer’s vice president and general merchandise manager. Screen-printed boy tanks with denim shorts, halter tops and side-tie bottoms in two-color scenic prints in swimwear and longer length board shorts are also hot. Seemingly ubiquitous styles have also kept pace, including anything black and denim.

“PacSun is not focusing on fads,” said Shinn, noting the chain has answered to consumers’ demand and will bank on the looks to carry them through summer. “We specialize in branded and private label casual and that just happens to be where the girls are right now. They know they can come to us for these casual options.”

Oren Hayun, principal of young contemporary chain Planet Funk, said the big enticement at his nine Southern California stores is military and workwear-influenced bottoms and outerwear softened with silk and satin flowing sexy tops. Denim is going more traditional with five pockets and subdued washes and “absolutely no whiskering,” he added. “That’s a big thing,” he emphasized. “It’s really got to be basic.” Florescent mesh tops and a considerable amount of silver accessories and belts are also selling briskly, jump-started by a rock and punk resurgence.

Hayun pointed out that the consumer is behaving somewhat differently these days by looking for something with a highly perceived value first and newness and fresh design second. As for spring business, it’s looking up. “Since the war ended, we’ve seen quite a spike in demand and it’s probably left over from the whole CNN effect,” he said. “There’s higher mall traffic now. Consumer confidence is up. Mother’s Day was packed. It was like Christmas.”