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Retail Thriller: Stores Rush to Sell Michael Jackson Merchandise

T-shirts of Michael Jackson are flying off the shelf at Kitson, and A.B.S. is pushing Jackson-esque band jackets.

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Retailers and apparel vendors are scrambling to get Michael Jackson merchandise into stores to capitalize on fans’ hunger for a piece of the iconic pop star who was honored Tuesday at a two-hour memorial service in Los Angeles.


 Several stores said they have been inundated by requests for Jackson items. T-shirts were the most coveted apparel picks, although consumers gravitated toward shoes, jackets and gloves emblematic of Jackson’s style, as well.

Betsy McLaughlin, chief executive officer of Hot Topic Inc., said two licensed men’s T-shirts and one women’s T are scheduled to be delivered to the City of Industry, Calif.-based teen retailer within the next week. “Most of what is available now at retail is unlicensed, bootleg product, which we will not carry as it hurts the artist,” she said.

Stephen Donnelly, vice president and general merchandising manager of women’s apparel at Kmart, said after Jackson’s death on June 25: “We got a small shipment of Ts to a limited number of stores within one week. We are continuing to react to customer demand with more T-shirt deliveries this week, and will be looking at additional merchandise in-store and online as needed.”

The staying power of the demand for Jackson-themed apparel was uncertain, but the spike in interest for his music is likely to remain front and center for a prolonged period.

Kitson in Los Angeles has carried shirts with a likeness of Jackson for months, and owner Fraser Ross said the apparel is “just flying off the shelves in men’s and women’s.…There’s a really fine line between capitalizing on someone’s death and giving fans what they want as a tribute.”

Contemporary designer Allen Schwartz of A.B.S. was already shipping Jackson-inspired band jackets when the entertainer died. The A.B.S. jacket, in black or red gabardine with gold trim and epaulets, retails for $285 and Schwartz said he plans to double or triple the projections. “I saw the trend developing two months ago, and now I plan to build on it,” Schwartz said. “His passing will have a huge impact on fashion.”

Target experienced a “significant” increase in sales of the three Michael Jackson albums it carries, said Joshua Thomas, a spokesman.

“We instructed stores to bring them to the front of the aisle where you only find new releases,” he said. “In mid-July we will possibly bring in other products across the store. What we’re seeing, as retailers across the industry, is an appreciation of his musical talent from a wide variety of audiences.”

Jackson’s untimely death, his unusual lifestyle, legal battles and complicated licensing matters could present challenges.

Michael Stone, president and ceo of Beanstalk Group, which manages licenses for the Andy Warhol Foundation, Samsonite and L.L. Bean, said not all retailers want to be associated with Jackson.

“If they were to focus on building and enhancing his musical legacy, over time people will forget about [the other stuff],” he said. “In the near term, there will be retailers that will steer clear of Michael Jackson.”

“It’s going to be a long time before [the estate] figures out who controls the rights and what they want to do with them,” Stone said. “In the meantime, there [are] counterfeiters and infringers all over the place.”

But Tuesday was about mourning Jackson, who was celebrated during an emotional service at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Although police said hundreds of thousands of fans could descend on the district, people heeded the warnings and the throngs did not show up. However, anticipating larger numbers, many fashion industry employees stayed away from their downtown offices.

Inside the Staples Center, celebrities such as Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Brooke Shields, Jennifer Hudson, Usher, John Mayer, Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder sang and spoke about the star. Jackson’s brothers wore Versace black suits, white shirts and gold ties. Sister La Toya Jackson wore a black pantsuit and Janet Jackson was in a black dress with white piping from the Italian house.

 

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