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Father’s Day provided a much-needed boost to business, but, despite the pickup, retailers are expecting fall to be a dogfight.

This story first appeared in the June 19, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Spring sales were sluggish at best, thanks to lingering cold weather and a lackluster consumer. And while shoppers did turn out to buy gifts for their dads for the June holiday, it wasn’t enough to save the season.

Even so, men’s wear retailers are keeping a positive attitude as they head into fall. Early receipts for the season are selling for some stores, and when the rest of the merchandise flows in, merchants are hopeful that shoppers will be lured to their floors to add to their wardrobes. The fear remains, however, that it’s going to take promotional pricing or some other incentive to spark those sales.

“I want to be optimistic, but I’m very concerned about the psychological factor of the consumer,” said Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer of Brooks Brothers. “They don’t feel any need to shop early; they will wait until the last minute.” Retailers being retailers, that generally means panic sets in and prices are cut. “[Fall’s] going to be highly promotional,” Amendola predicted.

That rang true for Father’s Day.

“Father’s Day turned out OK,” Amendola said, “but it came late: Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And the consumer is not spending money unless there’s some deal.”

Although Brooks Bros. did break price in certain categories, he said tailored clothing continued to garner attention from customers. “There’s a new generation that is wearing suits again, and for us, the clothing business still shows some signs of life,” he said. Blazers and sport coats in particular did well for Father’s Day, and the dress shirt business, “which had been sluggish, did come alive. It was a much more dressy Father’s Day than the traditional knit polo or tie.”

Overall, the National Retail Federation was predicting the average person would spend $113.80 on Father’s Day this year, down slightly from $119.84 in 2013. Total spending for the holiday was expected to reach $12.5 billion. More than 41 percent of consumers were expected to buy apparel, spending a total of $1.8 billion. Final figures are not available at press time.

David Fisher, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s wear for Bloomingdale’s, said sales rose in the “solid single digits” for Father’s Day, which was “better than the year-to-date trend.” But sales came in very specific categories including contemporary sportswear, shoes and classic sportswear, he said. “It was a very casual Father’s Day,” Fisher said. “It defied the reality of the traditional shirts and ties.” Instead, shorts, T-shirts, casual shirts and casual shoes from brands such as Vince, Theory, Polo, Burberry, Varvatos and Hugo Boss led the way.

Accessories were strong, including small leather goods from MCM and others, and the Nike and New Balance brands did well.

Denim was not good, he said, and the tailored clothing business was “very sluggish. We didn’t do great with dress shirts or ties,” he said. “The tailored business is difficult,” added Fisher. “There’s a lot of income compression and the Millennial customer is faced with a conundrum: Do I spend $1,200 on a suit at Bloomingdale’s or go to Suit Supply and spend $600?”

Fisher said it’s imperative that retailers “respond to that. The first-time suit buyer doesn’t know a lot of the technical details about what makes a suit cost what it does. The onus is on us to explain the value in a Turnbull & Asser shirt or why a suit costs $1,200.” If that doesn’t happen, he added, the customer will just opt to buy online, at an off-pricer or through a flash sale, rather than the traditional department or specialty store. “The customer has a lot of choices today,” he said.

Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president and gmm of men’s for Barneys New York, said Father’s Day was “more of a ‘cool’ dad’s holiday,” this year. “Gifts with a casual and young spirit were leading, such as ATM Ts and Masons chinos.” ATM loungewear as well as Phlip, a collection from tennis player Mark Philippoussis, also sold well.

In the luxury sector, Fioroni sweaters performed well, as did bags from Prada and Serapian Milano, a Barneys exclusive, he added. Small leather goods, such as wallets and card cases, from Givenchy, Balenciaga, Christian Louboutin and Comme des Garçons did well, spurred on by “variety in color and material,” he said, which created “the impulse to pick up a new piece.”

Sunglasses from Oliver Peoples, Barton Perrairai, Garrett Leight and Moscot in classically inspired silhouettes with pop color and mirrored finishes did well, as did watches from Uniform Wares, Tsovet and Bravur, which are “offering a slightly more understated scale versus the ‘big’ watch trend we’ve seen the last few seasons.”

In tailored clothing, Kalenderian said spring has been “a very good season with the higher sell-throughs.”

Looking ahead to fall, Kalenderian said be believes “men’s is poised for growth. With the reopening of the renovated men’s floors in New York and Beverly Hills, we anticipate good results. Men’s is also performing very well on barneys.com.”

Tom Ott, senior vice president and gmm of men’s for Saks Fifth Avenue, saw a dichotomy for Father’s Day. “It was either very dressy or it was streetwear-contemporary,” he said. “Two ends of the spectrum and not a lot in between.”

He said young people continue to drive sales in tailored clothing, with strength from the “sartorial houses. Luxury continues to perform, and the young, trim suit continues to drive the business. We’ve had nice tailored business this season.”

In contemporary, the business is getting a boost from the continuing popularity of sneakers. “It graduated from that to great new denim and contemporary brands, many of whom are from Paris and London,” Ott said. In addition, footwear continues to perform well, with colorful drivers and other updated casual models leading the way. And within the Saks Fifth Avenue collection, short-sleeve knits, polos, Ts and slub knits were strong.

Ott said he remains upbeat about fall because there are “so many good trends out there and tailored clothing continues to perform. As we go into fall, it’s a little easier with all the great fabrics and weights. And after last year’s crazy cold winter, we’re loaded for bear in outerwear.”

Wayne Drummond, group senior vice president of apparel for Hudson’s Bay/Lord & Taylor, said he was pleased with Father’s Day sales, with both retail chains posting “nice increases.” At The Bay, all men’s wear categories performed, and tailored clothing was a bright spot at both stores. “Suits are a mature category,” he said. “We’ve been anchored around that for years, but it’s still the biggest growth vehicle.” This includes both nested suits, which rose in the low single digits, and separates, which grew more. “The business continues to evolve into slimmer silhouettes for our core and younger customer and that’s making the business robust.”

In addition, linen tops from the proprietary Black Brown 1826 label, casual footwear and denim were also standouts, along with casual tops from Izod, Polo and Hugo Boss.

Looking ahead, he said the strength of Father’s Day “gives us more confidence” about fall. “We’ve been on a consistently strong trend at Hudson’s Bay for a couple of years, so we’re building on that momentum, and we’re encouraged by the comps we’re getting at Lord & Taylor. Our focus there will be to continue to edit brands and be more productive, and that will set us up to get the fall business we’ve built.”

Bob Mitchell, copresident of Mitchells Family of Stores, said spring sales have been slow, but Father’s Day was good. “It was the first week of the season where traffic was ahead,” he said. Customers responded best to shirts and ties, novelty shorts and fashion knitwear. Woven shirts from brands such as Robert Graham and Sands, which featured interesting details, were also strong.

“We even had people buying suits with the new fit,” Mitchell said, admitting that tailored clothing as a whole has been “challenging” so far this spring, with jackets doing better than suits.

In total, he said the men’s business has been tough, but he remains optimistic about fall. “I’m not bullish, but as merchants, we have to keep reinventing ourselves. Guys have embraced the new fit, and a lot of the growth has been men switching to the slimmer fits. So we have to continue to give people a reason to buy. At least the customers seem to be more upbeat, so that’s encouraging.”

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