By  on August 8, 2006

Perhaps more than any other apparel category, swimwear depends on Mother Nature to propel sales. When it's cold and rainy, women don't buy suits, and when the beaches heat up, they do. So in the middle of a hot summer like this one, retailers often find themselves grappling for whatever merchandise they can get their hands on.

"The weather just kicked in for us, so we have to be in the moment and capture every bit of summer we can," said Diane Biggs, a retailer for 42 years, with 14 Diane's Swimwear stores in California. "Customers have been very cautious [earlier in the season] and they weren't prepared for this heat wave."

Partner Lisa Rovan of Karla Colletto said swimwear has been selling very well as summer has progressed. "We have definitely noticed a huge increase in summer sales. In June and July, our product is selling almost double what it was last year," she said.

In the past, such robust summer sales numbers may have signaled trouble for customers looking for that special suit. Typically, about 75 percent of stores mark down their merchandise by the Fourth of July weekend, so customers looking to update their swim wardrobes may be out of luck, finding little more than the picked-over remains of earlier orders.

Such markdowns may not always be in a retailer's best interest, according to Lisa Keen, sales director at Manhattan Beachwear. "There's no blanket way to define that because everyone has different clocks," she said. "There aren't any more sales now than before. What's difficult is how to predict buying with stores who promote swim all season long and those who mark down. But if business is hard and they need to move goods, they are going to mark down."

Either way, as swimwear stocks dwindle after Independence Day, retailers have to decide whether to reorder.

Many really have no choice. "We have to have the suits," said Biggs. "We are not ready to end our summer yet, nor is our customer. We are calling our vendors at 6 a.m. after the weekend and grabbing up as many suits as we can."Reorders can be complicated by the popularity of separates. Customers love them because the tops and bottoms fit better, but manufacturers are still figuring out how to replenish a variety of sizes on short notice and so late in the season.

"This is way too difficult for most stores to handle," said Helmut Behensky, owner of the Bea's Swimwear chain in Los Angeles. "The suits are pretty picked-over by this time of the year because everyone is readying for the new season. Specialty stores can find a way to satisfy their needs. All I've been doing for the last two weeks is reordering."

But many savvy retailers are instead ordering next year's merchandise, or what is known as early cruise, by late June. This way, not only can stores offer customers something new to consider, but they can get early reads on 2007 trends and can begin stocking popular items for the vacation customer who buys in the fall.

Howard Greller, chief merchandising officer of Apparel Ventures Inc., said the company shipped the first of its cruise 2007 line at the end of

June — for groups in its W Swim, Rampage and Local Motion lines — and retailers ordered new merchandise at full price immediately after the Fourth of July weekend.

"There is now a demand for newer merchandise right out of the box. Last year, the gambit was worth the effort, so we would clearly do it again next year," he said. "It might encourage other people to do the same."

This demand for newness was one reason Tommy Bahama's decided to launch a secondary line, called Tommy Bahama Relaxed, that hits a lower price point than its sportswear line. The lower price point is important, as many post-Independence Day customers are accustomed to sales on swimwear during this period. "We are catering to that 'buy it now' customer," said women's wear director Lynne Koplin. "She is looking for newness, but doesn't want to spend a whole lot."

What makes the most sense, according to Behensky, is for manufacturers to produce year-round to keep laborers occupied and get into a total-season pattern. In fact, most swimwear companies now try to produce new groups every month to fulfill demand. "Mid-early cruise is available from early June on, but if you are not prepared, you are scrambling at this moment," he said. "Producing year-round is more advantageous."Many manufacturers produce summer collections made specifically for this time.

"We do a mini-collection around April or May [that sells in summer] because customers don't want to see the same old things," said Cea Adams of CeaSwim Swimwear.

"Our girl is smart," said Miami designer Red Carter. "She's expecting a suit to wear for cruise season and one for now, so we do a summer collection that is smaller and picks up on new ideas or energies in the market."

This article appeared in WWD Swim, a special supplement to WWD available to subscribers.

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