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Apparel Uptick Bodes Well for Spring

After a lackluster summer in which retail sales were mediocre at best, customers are slowly starting to return to the stores.

The apparel picture is brightening.

After a lackluster summer in which retail sales were mediocre at best, leading some major retailers to bring down overall projections for the year, customers are slowly starting to return to the stores. Driven by the lure of updated merchandise and the need to stock up for back-to-school, retailers are finally getting some traction on early fall. As a result, their outlook for the remainder of the year — including the all-important holiday period — has improved marginally, and they’re hopeful the trend will continue as they finish up their spring buying at the trade shows in Las Vegas this week.

“Climate-wise, it was an unfavorable first quarter — very cool — but then a warm June and July,” said David Zant, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s wear for Belk. “Now it’s cooled down, which is helping us.”

He said the men’s division “made plan” for spring, led by tailored clothing and furnishings rather than sportswear.

“The sportswear trend improved in the second quarter, but it still wasn’t where we wanted it to be.” Still, the picture is improving. Zant said denim, particularly Levi’s, has been an early star for b-t-s. And non-denim twill pants in colors like khaki and gray are also making inroads with a double-digit jump in sales “on a low percentage of inventory. This is really a growing trend for us that is showing a lot of upside as we go into fall.”

Belk’s young men’s business, both branded and private label, is also a strong performer so far. “And our activewear business is good. This is a business we weren’t in until a year ago, but we landed Under Armour and Nike and it’s very encouraging.”

In Vegas, he said the Belk team will “pick up on new trends and vendor opportunities” in sportswear. As a Southern-based retailer, Belk merchants will also look for brands and trends that “exude a Southern sensibility. We continue to build that business. Everywhere we’ve done that so far has been successful.”

The color explosion sweeping the men’s market should be popular with the Southern customer, although Zant said the company needs to keep it in check: “Color works great in tops, but we overshot it a bit in bottoms. We didn’t have enough neutrals. So we need to find the proper balance.”

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Durand Guion, vice president and men’s fashion director of Macy’s, said the company is “feeling good at the start of the back-to-school season.” Last week, Macy’s posted a rare misstep in the second quarter, reporting a 0.8 percent drop in sales and earnings per share below expectations. Other retailers, including Wal-Mart, Nordstrom and Kohl’s, also cut earnings outlooks for the year, even as apparel sales were on the rebound.

However, Macy’s is hopeful about the second half as accelerated receipts of early fall merchandise and a heightened sense of urgency about holiday shopping are expected to have a positive impact.

Guion said, “The camo thing has kicked in for early fall selling in men’s. It’s happening in tops and bottoms. And denim continues to be explosive.” The driving factor is fit, with men throughout the U.S. discovering and now embracing the slimmer silhouette.

Shorts continue to sell strongly, Guion added, making the store “rethink” its strategy on this category for b-t-s and third quarter. “We stop thinking shorts at the end of the second quarter, but the customer is still looking for them. We need to give that some thought for next spring.”

In addition to shorts, Guion said Macy’s will look for “newness” at the Vegas shows, especially the next incarnation of camouflage prints — something “beyond olive, into blues and other colors” — as well as items that play into “the whole floral thing. Animal prints in the right scale and coloration,” as well as other prints and patterns to update the men’s floor, will also be important for spring, he believes.

Blue is also a key trend. “When men’s is in a blue cycle, we really go after it in a big way,” he said. Black and white, dip dyes and hombres, striped wovens and the whole “photo-realism” trend for graphic Ts and fleeces are also on the shopping list.

Wayne Drummond, senior vice president of Hudson’s Bay Co.’s Lord & Taylor and The Bay divisions, said growing the men’s business, particularly at L&T, is a priority. As reported, the Manhattan flagship is in the final weeks of a massive overhaul and expansion of its men’s store, a project that should be completed just after Labor Day.

“We continue to put a lot of focus at L&T on growing the men’s business,” he said. “We see this happening by introducing ourselves to customers we don’t have to-date while maintaining our core loyal customers.”

The spark to lure both of these groups will be an expansion of the denim and modern contemporary businesses, he said, categories the buying team will be looking for in Vegas. The mix will continue to be at the better and best price levels. As a result, the team will shop the Tents at Project, the show’s elevated brand platform. “That’s going to be bigger and more meaningful this time and will include some European brands, which will help our elevated strategy,” Drummond said. Footwear is also in both chains’ sights, and merchants will shop at Project and FN Platform.

Overall, Drummond said he remains optimistic for fall. “We have a lot of great initiatives, and we’re executing them the way we want to.”

Steve Lawrence, chief merchandising officer for Stage Stores, said he’s searching for a “weather-proof assortment” in Vegas, pieces that can work whether spring is cool or warm, like long-sleeve wovens and bottoms that serve as a transition between long pants and shorts.

Bryan Reynolds, divisional merchandise manger of men’s at Scoop NYC, said that besides wear-now pieces like swimwear, shorts and sunglasses, the stores are also having success with “special novelty product” for fall such as Moncler outerwear. “It’s already checking,” he said. “I’m optimistic about fall, more so than spring. I think sweaters and woven shirts will be great.” In Vegas, Reynolds will look for new brands and product with a California vibe, graphic Ts, denim and “unique accessories.”

Wally Naymon, owner of Kilgore Trout men’s store in Cleveland, said traffic has been down over the summer, but tailored clothing has held its own.

“You need traffic to sell sportswear,” he said. Even so, he said he believes the second half of the year will be good. “We’re getting response to fall clothing, sweaters, colorful corduroys in new fits. I’m very pumped for fall.”

In Vegas, he expects to finish his spring sportswear buy, search out fresh denim pieces “and related items.” His tailored clothing buy is virtually complete, but he’s open to picking up a few things to “verify that our initial foray was right on. I tend to be too impetuous at first,” he said. “I’m a better buyer later in the season.”

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Patty Leto, senior vice president of merchandising for The Doneger Group, said that although men’s retailers “hit a lull” after Father’s Day, the past couple of weeks have been more encouraging. “Retailers are more positive and optimistic,” she said. Key items that are resonating with consumers include textured knits, varsity pieces, long denim in various washes and fits and non-denim pants.

Tom Julian, director of strategic business development for Doneger, said for spring, “it’s time to change it up.” He said the keys for spring in men’s will include graphic Ts; patterned short-sleeve wovens; piped, trimmed or detailed sport coats; slim-straight white denim, and printed swim shorts. In women’s, printed pants; solid or printed maxiskirts; mixed media T-shirts; wovens with cutout shoulders, and jackets with styles ranging from anoraks and field jackets to motocross.

In the women’s arena, dresses have been a dominant force in spring, but it’s unclear if that dominance will persist. Roseann Morrison, fashion director at Doneger, said, “We are seeing more skirts. That has to have an impact on the dress business. We’re not sure how that is going to play out yet. Maxis have been good in the skirt category.”

Maxiskirt sales are surging at Glik’s. “Maxiskirts took the whole market by surprise,” said Jeff Glik, president and chief executive officer of the 60-unit Granite City, Ill.-based retailer. “It is unbelievable, the numbers we are selling right now, and that will transfer into spring only because so few people have them. It is going to be a good early fall item, and it is going to pick up again for early spring.”

Still, dresses aren’t fading from the spotlight. They are a staple at Edina, Minn.-based chain Hot Mama. “We took a bigger investment this past spring in dresses. I see us continuing that trend because that was very successful,” said vice president Kristina Klockars.

Dresses are big business as well at Tommy Bahama, where Stephen Cirona, senior vice president of women’s sportswear, mentioned maxidresses would be essential for spring.

“Dresses are so important because [our customer] travels a lot, and she’s looking for very casual but very chic pieces, and we are able to give her dresses for the beach all the way up to casual evening. We have them in lightweight linen jersey, jacquards and stripes, and with beautiful, engineered prints,” he said. “She’s responding to the styling, the weight of the fabrics and the ease of care.”

Retailers have noticed that prices are creeping up. Jill Shea, cmo at 165-store Fargo, N.D.-based Vanity, said, “Our units are similar to last year, but our purchase dollars are greater this year because of some of the different categories that are important. Woven shirting is more expensive than basic knits. That’s a bit part of our costing going up.”

Coinciding with elevated prices, Klockars sensed a return to quality. She noted retailers are returning to brands known for quality and moving away from the cheaper lines they had brought in to drive down prices.

“We spent a couple of years buying fast fashion, and there has been a huge realization that the fast fashion doesn’t last very long,” she said. “People are going back to wanting a bang for their buck and [are realizing] that if they spend a little more, they’re going to get something they’re happier with.”

Not all retailers are equally affected. Heidi Hoelzer, vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s at Scoop NYC, hasn’t detected a pullback. “There’s a general uptick in pricing, but my customer hasn’t had resistance to it,” she said. “My designer business has been strong, and the brands that are on the cusp of contemporary into designer — where the average price point is $600 — have been really strong, too. The customer is willing to dish out for what she feels is on trend or has the quality to back the price.”

Anxiety about pricing hasn’t been an obstacle for customers at Kitson, according to Tony Chinn, head buyer at the Southern California retailer, where streetwear has been a major sales driver. “This year, I have seen less hesitation on price,” he said. “The prices are going up, but also the pieces are getting better. If you have the right piece with the right quality, people will spend for it.”

The unpredictability of the economy is only trumped by the unpredictability of the weather. Retailers are making strategic moves for spring to cope with potentially volatile weather conditions. Grant Leeds, head designer at DownEast, a 50-unit chain based in Salt Lake City, stressed layering.

“When fall comes again, if she hasn’t gotten all her wear out of it, she can throw it back on,” he said. “It is also about lightweight jackets or cardigans that allow you to layer and wear until the weather warms up.”