By and  on May 31, 1994

NEW YORK -- Women's inventories this spring look fresh, fashion-right and a lot more colorful, softer and feminine than last year's crop -- yet consumers aren't biting.

That's the message from many of the nation's top retailers, who in interviews last week seemed baffled by the downturn in women's sales since Easter, particularly in sportswear. "The apparel business has gotten tougher over the last six weeks, but parts of men's wear have been good and home furnishings have been outstanding," said Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive officer of Bloomingdale's.

"The merchandise looks good. It's just not turning," added Joseph Cicio, chairman and chief executive officer of I. Magnin, referring to the sportswear business at the stores during May. While designer sales have been good, sportswear has been "terrible," he added.

And Leslie Wexner, chairman and ceo of The Limited, said women's sales were strong this year until Easter, but acknowledged a slowdown since then. He said it could be due to rising interest rates or weather factors, but admitted, "We're scratching our heads."

Wexner and others expect a pickup for fall, possibly beginning in July, when the cooler-weather goods hit the selling floors, but the current sluggishness will be reflected in May sales on Thursday, when major retailers issue the results for the month.

"It's got nothing to do with a lack of attractive fashions," said retail analyst Kurt Barnard. "It's demographics and economics. America is getting older, staying at home more and entertaining more at home, so people need less diversity of clothing and less expensive clothing. Also, dress codes at work have relaxed, meaning less money is being spent on clothing."

Some women's areas and labels are holding up, however. According to Cicio, in the last two weeks, I. Magnin's catalog sold 402 Betsey Johnson full-skirted tank dresses, priced $140; 379 high-heeled sandals by Ellen Tracy, priced $135, and 451 mock turtleneck ribbed silk sweaters in such colors as cantaloupe, moss green, ivory or black.

Bloomingdale's Gould cited special sizes and handbags as strong.

Dayton's, Hudson's and Marshall Field's, Dayton Hudson Corp.'s department store division, had a strong first quarter in women's apparel, with comparable-store sales ahead of last year's by 5 to 6 percent, but May sales have been poor, according to Marvin Goldstein, president and chief operating officer.

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