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Shifting Lanes in Junior, Contemporary

After several years of consistently strong sales in juniors and contemporary segments, spending patterns are starting to shift.

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LOS ANGELES — Fashion is watching a couple of key trends in the junior and contemporary segments pretty closely these days, trends that have nothing to do with cargo pants or terry cloth tops.

This story first appeared in the October 29, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The industry has seen consistently strong sales in these categories in the past few years. But recent reports suggest this might soon change, as industry watchers from researchers to retailers to design firms are noticing shifts in the segments — for better and for worse — as documented by Port Washington, N.Y.-based apparel research firm NPD Group Inc. in a recent study.

Here is a look at the spending patterns revealed in the junior and contemporary arenas.

CONTEMPORARY

The contemporary market is on a roll.

Researchers claim actual dollars spent in the segment are hard to quantify because some companies call themselves contemporary even when they’re not, but, according to an informal poll, the category is among the strongest out there.

“There’s a contemporary craze,” stated Kurt Barnard, president of Upper Montclair, N.J.-based firm Retail Forecasting. “The contemporary market is a little more sedate and less subject to the junior market’s instantaneous reversals. It is not slow to the extent that it exists in cutting-edge fashion, but it does not veer into crazy directions at the drop of a hat.”

Contemporary can be defined as a market of 25- to 34-year-old shoppers who buy fashion-forward items retailing between $100 and $400.

Observers see the market as particularly vibrant in California, given the region’s ability to produce high-quality goods quickly and cost-effectively. Citizens of Humanity, Sanctuary, Juicy Couture, Von Dutch, Earl Jean and Frankie B. are all contemporary labels that hail from the state.

But, according to Sandy Richman, co-principal of Directives West, “The contemporary business is good all over the country,” adding the category also has a strong following among the under-25 crowd.

“Basically, contemporary is my best-trending business right now,” said Gail Steed, vice president and divisional merchandising manager at Parisian Stores, noting nine out of 42 doors carry contemporary merchandise. Fur trim, leather-and-sweater mixes, miniskirts and T-shirts are driving sales at the Saks Department Store Group division. Trina Turk and Cynthia Steffe, for example, both deliver “compelling” collections that “jump off the fixtures,” she said.

And the looks appeal to everyone from teens to women in their 40s, no matter their economic standing. Shoppers’ quests to be “ahead of the curve” is the real reason for the category’s success, said Steed. “Money is not the problem,” she said. “It’s the look.”

Stephan Skoda, owner of Julian Gold with four stores in Texas, has seen his contemporary business take off with bottoms from Joie and Citizens of Humanity and tops from Nanette Lepore, Custo, Plenty and Muchacha racking up sales.

The boutique began carrying the category two years ago to supplement bridge and designer, misses’ and accessories sales. The decision has paid off. The boutique’s sales have shot up 20 percent this year compared with 15 percent last year, said Skoda.

“It’s our fastest-growing area,” he said, adding a warning to struggling retailers: “You’ve got to wake up. You just can’t bury yourself in one category.”

Skoda particularly values the category’s ability to turn on a dime. “We can buy closer and closer to the season, so we don’t run the risk of inflating inventory,” he said. But the good times won’t last forever. Two years down the road, Skoda predicts a leveling off in contemporary due to saturation caused by more resources and retailers entering the game.

Elyse Walker, owner of the four-year-old Pacific Palisades, Calif., boutique by the same name, calls the category “safe,” even for years to come, given customers’ mature ages and confidence in their personal styles. Although she declined to reveal sales growth increases, she said sales have improved over last year.

Walker’s strategy is simple: having enough inventory to keep an eclectic-looking store appealing to passersby, as well as those spending time on the sales floor. “You really have to be a good listener,” she said. For spring, Walker is betting on color to drive business, including yellow, fuchsia, green, pink and purple. She also plans to continue buying “heavily” into pleated miniskirts, a look she said has been selling briskly since early fall.

Jeannine Braden, owner of Fred Segal Flair in Santa Monica, Calif., said contemporary goods offer customers creative and unique fashion at accessible price points. “I like the younger designers,” she said. “They’re more experimental and the clothes feel more hand-touched.” Flair has been selling out of suitings, peacoats and denim from Paper, Denim & Cloth and Citizens of Humanity. For the warmer months, Braden is banking on shorter skirts, feminine dresses and lots of color.

“It’s unavoidably feminine,” she said, of spring’s offerings. “And at three out of five resources, black wasn’t even an option,” she said. To Braden, it’s a signal contemporary companies are in a good mood. “The market is definitely stronger now than even a few months ago,” she said..

JUNIORS

The economic forecast for the junior retail and apparel segments calls for stormy days ahead, and not just because the shopping group is famously fickle when it comes to fashion trends.

According to a survey released this month by NPD, tweens (ages seven to 10) and teens (ages 13 to 17) are spending less overall and changing the way they spend discretionary dollars by skipping branded fashion in favor of value-oriented goods. That could represent a boon for the Wal-Marts and Targets of the world, but it could leave specialty and department stores in a quandary.

In the 12 months ended July 2003, total spending in the tween and teen markets dropped to about $32 billion from $38 billion notched in the previous 12 months. Tween spending decreased 17.6 percent to $11.3 billion, or 6.6 percent of total apparel sales. Teen spending in the same period dropped 13.8 percent to $20.9 billion, or 12.4 percent of total apparel sales.

This is the first year tweens and teens have shown a decrease in spending. From 2001 to 2002, tween spending grew 24 percent while teen spending increased 23 percent.

“We’re now finding that teens and tweens are one of the fastest-declining segments in the market,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD, citing increased competition for their dollars and oversaturation of the apparel market.

The economy is also to blame. Teens, who previously had greater access to parents’ wallets, are now finding the well dried up by job fears, rising living expenses and diversification of spending on higher-ticket items like computers, home goods and cars. In addition, teens’ capacity for making money has been stalled by more part-time jobs given to older applicants in a tight job market. Therefore, kids are left with fewer dollars and they’re stretching them across many more retail categories, such as cell phones, MP3 and DVD players, computers, entertainment and food.

“This is the first generation that’s really had to grow up on a budget,” said Cohen. “The X-ers and Y-ers were very catered to and the economy was healthy.”

According to NPD’s findings, today’s teens are seeking “stylish, but appropriately priced” apparel. That’s not to say they don’t still like shopping at such specialty stores as Abercrombie & Fitch, Aeropostale and American Eagle.

NPD said the majority of apparel purchases among kids age seven to 17 were split between specialty stores and mass merchants, 32 and 22 percent, respectively, in the 12 months ended August 2003.

Teen clothing at specialty stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle was still strong with almost 37 percent of total apparel purchases spent in this channel during the same period.

But in the that period, tween clothing purchases were most prevalent in mass merchants with 32 percent of dollars spent at stores like Target and Kmart. The national chain channel, such as Kohl’s and Sears, was the second-largest channel in the tween market, notching just over a 21 percent dollar share.

Now, kids might buy only one item from a big name and supplement that purchase with private brands or basics from discounters and off-pricers. “They can buy expensive jeans and pair them with a disposable top to coordinate and it’s fine,” said Cohen. “It’s almost not cool to be dressed in head-to-toe designer.”

NPD statistics show tween and teen dollars spent on private label merchandise is slowly overtaking spending on national brands, once the largest piece of the pie. Since 2001, the percentage of dollars spent on private label jumped to 42 percent from 39 percent, or a $120 million swing away from national brands and designer goods. Percentage of dollars spent on national brands has remained flat for the last two years at 32 percent. Only 3.5 percent of tween and teen dollars is now spent on designer goods, down from 5.5 percent two years ago.

“Shopping for fashion at a price is a lifestyle change and it doesn’t just change automatically,” said Cohen. “They will spend like that for life.”

Ross Stores has recognized the shift. A spokeswoman for the chain explained that the junior market has been one of the off-pricer’s strongest-performing businesses in the past three fiscal years, growing at a double-digit pace, with buyers working harder to keep fashion-oriented items at low price points in stores. “We’ve made investments in the buying organization,” she said, noting the Hayward, Calif., retailer recently opened an office in the California Market Center, “to be in the heart of where junior vendors are located.”

Kids also are increasingly accepting of fashion brands like Mossimo and Isaac Mizrahi at Target; Bisou Bisou and Parallel at J.C. Penney, and Joe Boxer at Kmart — all makers that have struck exclusive agreements with discounters.

So where does that leave traditional junior retailers?

“Since we can’t count on tweens and teens like we used to and because two out of three stores in malls target the junior customer, apparel manufacturers and retailers must realize they need to aim at a [demographic] just above and below the center of their core customer,” said Cohen. “In this case, that might mean targeting younger kids and the college crowd.”

The contemporary market, age 25 to 34, and the misses’ market, age 35 to 44, are possible refuges. “Misses’ in particular is a huge portion of the population and that’s where the income is,” said Cohen.

Los Angeles-based Forever 21, known for cheap, up-to-the-minute fashion for 15-year-olds, is already skewing older based on what it calls “anecdotal” information the chain gathered similar to NPD’s research.

The 173-unit company recently started selling conservative, career-oriented items like jackets, blouses, skirts and pants for shoppers between the ages of 25 and 40. Prices generally remain between $20 and $30.

The strategy is apparently working for the privately held $500 million-a-year chain, according to chief financial officer Larry Meyer. “Traffic is higher and, though items in the store are less expensive than they were last year, we’re selling more units,” he said. “At Forever 21, we’re all about change, and we look at what we are to our customer.”

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