By  on July 11, 2007

It's been a tough year for traditional women's sportswear, and vendors are hoping this fall will provide relief.

From moderate to better to bridge, apparel targeting the 30-plus woman seems to be in a dry spell, as an elusive customer and weak sales have hit the bottom line of the big vendors. But careful edits, trend-right items, casual lifestyle collections and a solid dose of marketing might be enough to reverse sliding sales for fall.

To beat market challenges, Andrea Goldreyer, better market analyst for The Doneger Group, recommends closely tailoring stockkeeping units and focusing on fashionable items, as opposed to collections sold from top to bottom.

"In any kind of a collections business, we need to have more focused assortments, because [the target consumer] is not buying in the quantity she was buying before," Goldreyer said. "The traffic is certainly down in the stores, but the customer is responding to any newness we are putting out for her."

For spring, Goldreyer said trend items that have sold well have included color, Bermuda shorts, A-line blouses, silk charmeuse blouses and the trapeze jacket — the last of which she said "stores didn't carry much for spring, but they will have more for fall." Going into fall, she is excited about the feminine blouse, the A-line jacket continuing in new textures, the wide-leg trouser, the updated turtleneck and other tops with new sleeve treatments, pencil skirts, plaids, men's wear patterns and color.

One of the reasons trapeze jackets are doing well is because they move from career to casual, and the better customer is demanding versatile lifestyle pieces, Goldreyer said. In the past, the traditional customer looked for business suits and other career resources, but now she wants more casual pieces, a lesson Nautica learned, said Denise Seegal, president and chief executive officer of its parent, VF Sportswear Coalition.

In the midst of VF Corp.'s record first-quarter results, Nautica's women's sportswear, which Seegal described as "still a work in progress" after its fall 2006 relaunch, was one of the only weak areas for the company. Revenues in VF's sportswear segment declined 8.9 percent to $148.4 million from $163 million, and management attributed much of this drop to Nautica."In general, the Nautica brand is having success, and women's sportswear is a very viable market for us," Seegal said. "We learned a lot from the soft launch for fall and holiday, such as a more casual product is what is selling, so we've adapted the product. It usually doesn't happen in the first nine months, but we hope to gain traction ASAP."

After VF announced its earnings, Liz Claiborne Inc. also traced its slide in first-quarter earnings back to weak wholesale figures in Claiborne's traditional women's sportswear brands. Net income fell 65.5 percent to $16.2 million from $46.9 million in the year-ago period, and sales fell 1.6 percent to $1.15 billion from $1.17 billion.

"These are hard headlines, but we aren't alone in this, particularly in the women's sportswear area," said Claiborne ceo William L. McComb.

Kellwood Co. shared in the pain. Kellwood's earnings for the first quarter ended May 5 fell 19.7 percent, driven by softness in women's sportswear, which makes up more than half of the $1.9 billion firm's business. The segment led the losses with earnings that fell 13.3 percent to $12.9 million from $14.8 million, and sales slipped 3.2 percent from $281.4 million to $272.5 million.

McComb blamed an industry-wide "acceleration of many of the negative trends that have impacted our wholesale business over the past few years:" retailers' growing reliance on private and exclusive brands, increasing margin pressure and declining consumer demand for traditional and bridge women's sportswear.

"It's clear that retail and national brands have become a very serious force in this competitive marketplace," said consultant Emanuel Weintraub. "The retailer private brands, like INC and Arizona, have been perceived by the consumer as brands equal to most other brands, and the national brands have to demonstrate a clear advantage to the retailer for them to buy a product that is going to sell at higher prices and deliver lower margins."

Weintraub said the key to differentiating brands is investing in marketing. Customers must view brands as offering not just clothing but also a lifestyle — and that takes smart advertising dollars, he said.

Consultant Robin Lewis proposed another option: If you can't beat retailer demands, join them, by partnering with stores to make the brands exclusive, such as the arrangements O Oscar and T Tahari have with Macy's, Simply Vera Vera Wang has with Kohl's Corp. and Liz & Co. has with J.C. Penney.When lines can deliver newness that meets the customers' needs, sales needn't suffer. Jones Apparel Group bucked the trend in its first quarter, posting a 2.7 percent increase in earnings to $1.25 billion from $1.22 billion and a sales gain of 2.3 percent to $1.23 billion, driven largely by a strong better apparel business, according to the company.

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