Retail Recognition

NEW YORK — Cheap can be chic.<br><br>Moderate-priced merchandise, sometimes considered the meat and potatoes of department stores without the garnishes, has long been associated with basic goods and overly coordinated “stuff,” rather...

NEW YORK — Cheap can be chic.

This story first appeared in the August 20, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Moderate-priced merchandise, sometimes considered the meat and potatoes of department stores without the garnishes, has long been associated with basic goods and overly coordinated “stuff,” rather than fashion. However, this season it’s linked to updating, casual-career dressing and vendors moving faster to interpret the junior and contemporary trends.

Deflation, a blending of budget and moderate areas, and a widening of price points have been critical factors on selling floors in the last couple of years.

According to retail sources, Rafaella has been a standout with novelty T-shirts, Tommy Hilfiger looks fresh, Teddi has been creating more fashion for the older customer and Alfred Dunner continues to grow. Bandolino, Liz Claiborne, J.H. Collectibles, Hearts of Palm are offering trendy goods, while Gloria Vanderbilt has repositioned toward career. Kellwood has strong moderate dress labels in Sag Harbor, Plaza South, Nine to Nine and Koret, while Leslie Fay has had a “sensational” season by getting younger in look, retailers said.

Industry sources said Dress Barn and J.C. Penney show the most fashion-right moderate assortments, while Kohl’s remains mainstream and basic. Federated Department Stores has improved its offering with more table presentations and departments to highlight trends and brands.

Roseanne Cumella, senior vice president of merchandising at the Doneger Group buying office, said the market has become more “fashion right and younger in attitude, with greater emphasis on attracting the Baby Boom customer.

“Her body has changed a little, but she wants to look fashionable,” Cumella said.

Kathy Bradley-Riley, Doneger’s divisional merchandise manager of sportswear, said: “Probably the biggest trend is utility: cargo pockets, nondenim bottoms. The other trend is the return to a new reinvented career. It’s not the power suit of the Eighties. It’s softer, more pulled together, a little less structured. We are seeing some good retail indications in jackets, particularly anything in men’s wear-type pinstripes and patterns, suede fabrics, corduroy in bottoms and jackets. Corduroy is hot from outerwear to sportswear. The whole initial thing is happening. Initials are selling.

“For spring, we are again loving utility bottoms, anything with a hemline interest. I think it’s going to be a huge skirt season, particularly A-line, party or flirty skirts, anything lingerie-inspired, with lace detail, bows and satin trim. Spring is very much about utility, feminine and all this Mod Sixties stuff…bold and bright patterns and color blocking.”

Thomas Crystal, senior vice president and general merchandise of Boscov’s, the Reading, Pa.-based department store chain, said, “Casual career type of business dressing, not structured career…comfortable and has stretch…will be a real thrust this fall and into next spring. We are looking for a lot more business out of categories like woven shirts, blouses and novelty knit tops. We also feel strong about alternative bottoms that span this career-casual feel, like twill bottoms and cotton poplin, either for work or dinner.”

Keith Fulsher, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of Dress Barn, said the leisure trend, athletic-inspired looks and feminine details, including sheer, lace trim, sleeve treatments and color, are driving the business.

“We’re seeing more novelty and less reliance on basics,” Fulsher said.

Denise Filchner, vice president for fashion merchandising at Federated Department Stores, said: “We feel very optimistic about the moderate business. We went back to strong basics with a fashion twist that are trend-right and offering good quality at great prices. We feel very strongly about novelty outerwear, anything from a zip-front sweater jacket with touches of leather or suede, to leather and suede outerwear.”

Federated has been emphasizing in-house brands JM Collection and the slightly more contemporary Style & Co.

At Gottschalks, senior vice president of apparel Scott Manson cited Columbia Sportswear and Woolrich as top brands for suburbanwear, while consumer interest in textures are driving sales in fleece and moleskin jackets, skirts and pants.

“There are some new lines emerging that are spin-offs of existing lines going after the younger misses’ customer,” added Gary Gladding, Gottschalks’ executive vice president of merchandising. “We see that as an all-store opportunity and specific to a whole series of doors that have a younger profile.”

Gottschalks is evaluating new divisions of Koret and Dunner, among others. “More space will go to these lines,” Gladding said.

One specialty chain, Draper’s & Damon’s based in Irvine, Calif., has converted the merchandise at its 43 stores to private label in the last two years to beat the promotional cycle.

“It gives us exclusivity, specialty-store pricing and quality,” said Wendy Bellamy, vice president of merchandising, adding that novelty beaded jackets and embroidered sweaters are top sellers.

This year, sales at Bealls, based in Bradenton, Fla., rose at least 11 percent across total misses’ sportswear, dresses, petites and plus sizes, according to Jack Wurzbacher, divisional vice president of women’s apparel. “It’s been a very strong year across all categories,” he said.

At Proffitts and McRae’s, both divisions of Saks Inc., the moderate business is up high-single digits with similar gains planned through the fourth quarter.

“Moderate business is very good and growing,” said Barb Schrantz, general merchandise manager of women’s ready-to-wear.

Casualwear and activewear are leading the way. Key lines are private brand Relativity and national brands such as Bill Blass, Oleg Cassini and Fuda.

“We’re marketing moderate much more into an item business,” including T-shirts, sweaters and faux suede tops and jackets, she said.

Moderate sportswear has “held its own” in sales and gross margin at Elder-Beerman Stores, said a spokeswoman. The strongest performers have been updated styles, knits and activewear. Norton McNaughton, John Paul Richard, AMI and DLG are leading brands.

To present a more cohesive statement, Elder-Beerman by spring plans to consolidate all private brand merchandise under one label. The growth of private brands will begin this fall with more denim jeans, casual khaki pants and basics. The chain is also sprucing up its “Attitudes” department of updated moderate styles with edgier graphics.