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NEW YORK — With the weather warming, Easter approaching and Saddam disappearing, U.S. consumers just might be more in the mood to spend. But shoppers are still picky and stores have plenty of catching up to do to get back on track.

This story first appeared in the April 15, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said its U.S. comparable-store sales for the first week of fiscal April, which ended Friday, were tracking toward a 5 to 7 percent increase for the month. “Seasonally correct temperatures at the end of the week helped make up ground from earlier in the week,” noted a spokeswoman on a recorded call. “Easter sales are currently tracking close to the sell-through levels of last year.” The strongest categories for the week included fabrics and crafts, boys’ wear and office supplies.

J.C. Penney Co., which is a week ahead of most other retailers in its fiscal calendar, noted its department store sales were “soft” last week. After two weeks, the chain said it’s trending below its April plan for a low-single-digit comp decrease.

Locally, the retail picture seemed to improve. Bloomingdale’s chairman and chief executive, Michael Gould, reported a pickup in business over the weekend, though Federated Department Stores Inc., parent to Bloomingdale’s as well as Macy’s, Burdines, The Bon Marche and others, said it expects a same-store sales decline of 2 to 3 percent for April.

At Henri Bendel, “We saw a return of traffic we haven’t seen in a while,” said Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager. “Saturday was up single digits and Sunday —being the better, weatherwise — was up double digits.”

Highlights included minis from Pat Field and Mary Quant; Anna Sui dresses that were featured in the windows, and Mac Cosmetics had a big pickup with Viva Glam. “We also had an amazing weekend with Daryl K, Rick Owens, Missoni and Matthew Williamson,” said Burstell.

Janet Brown, owner of the eponymous boutique in Port Washington on Long Island, said customers are buying for special events like vacations or parties, though she didn’t see a significant pickup.

“People are buying a bit more cautiously rather than frivolously, and they are not buying wardrobes but augmenting with pieces. They are item-buying,” said Brown, and it’s mostly in knitwear, cashmere cardigans and matching tanks and handembroidered T-shirts in black-and-white with labels like Etro and Marni.

At Relish, an upscale boutique in Chevy Chase, Md., “we had a great weekend but it was a lousy week,” said Nancy Pearlstein, owner. She said April is “pretty good,” and about even with last year. “People want interesting things they don’t have right now. They are looking for something a little different with a little color.”

Bestsellers included Dries Van Noten dresses, cotton pants and skirts; Nicole Farhi’s vintage Victorian floral skirts and dresses and Biella Collezione’s garment-dyed stretch jackets and pants.

“Last weekend was not so good because of the weather, the war and the economy,” said Henri Peker, owner of Micmac Bis, also in Chevy Chase. “It has been a mix.”

He said he “barely made the numbers” in March and said April “started out very slowly.” This weekend, Peker did well with Issey Miyake’s spring line in darker colors, and Yohji Yamamoto’s jackets, skirts and shirts. “Everybody is looking for the war to be done and what will come after with the economy,” he said. “People are scared and I think they are spending money on new homes with low interest rates and making clothing the last purchase.”

The Else boutique sold heavier pieces because of cold weather, said Brigitte Lupesco, an owner of the boutique in Georgetown. She said top sellers included suits, sweaters and “summery pieces” for tourists from California and Florida. Lighter suede and leather also sold well this past weekend. Among the leather standouts were short black or white leather coats by Rizal. “In times of war, people want to look more cheerful and women want to look more feminine,” she said.

On the West Coast, Jeff Farmer, co-president of Draper’s & Damon’s with 40 moderate misses’ stores and a catalog operation, said comp-store sales over the weekend were up almost 27 percent versus the same weekend a year ago. “The response to the catalog has been decent — but [in-store] retail has been above expectations,” he said, adding hopes for the catalog had been high because of increased mailings. Sportswear in lightweight fabrics and bright colors were the primary drivers at the Irvine, Calif.-based retailer, with textures such as mesh emerging as a trend to watch.

Allen B. Schwartz, design director of Los Angeles-based ABS by Allen Schwartz, also said consumers at his five namesake stores loosened their purse strings because of eased concern over the length of the war. “People are a little bit more settled,” he said. Sales of military and cargo looks, which had been ramping up even before the war started, have only been enhanced by the conflict. “We hit all that war fashion,” he said. “I think consumers were very supportive of military fashion. If you had those items, they bought it.” That’s not to say more feminine styles haven’t kept pace, particularly bouclé jackets and embellished denim, he added.

Larry Meyer, chief financial officer of Los Angeles-based junior retailer Forever 21, also cited military and athletic trends as taking off at the chain’s 148 stores. “Our unit volume is doing pretty well but these next weeks are very important for retailers.”