NEW YORK — Even as temperatures remain relatively mild throughout much of the country, retailers report outerwear sales have been brisk so far this winter.
Monroe Milstein, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Burlington Coat Factory, a 367-unit chain, said, “We’re affected by everything. But in the long run, it all evens out. We lost three stores due to hurricanes [last year]. But overall, business is good; even in Florida, we’re selling a lot of coats.”
In colder climates, lightweight down coats are still winning over customers at a variety of price points even though the category has been strong for several seasons. Down coats are “the number-one item” at Burlington Coat Factory, and they are also bestsellers at Searle and Lord & Taylor.
“They’re light, relatively inexpensive and provide extra warmth. And the colors and fashions are good,” Milstein said. “Sixty-nine dollars is the biggest selling point, but we’re selling them at higher and lower prices too.”
Interest in wool coats from Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis, Bill Blass and Donna Karan have picked up at Burlington Coat. “It’s a conventional coat. It’s just not as big as it was years ago.”
All in all, the mammoth retailer is having an excellent year for outerwear, said Milstein, adding “everything is way ahead.”
Searle founder Steve Blatt was also upbeat about the outerwear business. “It seems this year everyone is terrified they are going to freeze,” he said.
Perseverance is key to succeeding in this category. “Very few people understand the coat business. If it’s September or October and the weather is warm, many people give up,” Blatt said.
Blatt said his combined coat sales — at seven Searle stores and an eighth set to open this spring, as well as a wholesale outerwear business — are running between 15 and 20 percent ahead of last year. Last month’s early blast of winter helped boost sales, while the transit strike in New York last month had “little affect” on the business, he said.
“We’re still in the middle of it [referring to the current season]. We will wind up with a good coat business. January [sales] will help if it gets cold,” Blatt said. “We don’t have any fantastic sales. A few items are reduced but that’s mostly odds and ends.”
Down coats have been “outstanding,” especially styles retailing from Moncler, Postcard and Searle’s private label, Blatt said. Shoppers have not shied away from down’s $1,000 or $2,000 price tags, or the $2,000 to $3,000 tabs for shearling. Even Blatt is surprised by the down coat trend’s staying power.
“I’m shocked to say I didn’t think they would continue at this rate. It’s been five or six years since this started.” Blatt said. “Shearling has come back with a vengeance. I don’t think anyone predicted that.” But the wool coat business has been soft, Blatt said.
In terms of Searle’s wholesale business, Blatt said, “It’s better than retail, and it’s much better than last year with capital letters.” Saks Fifth Avenue bought into the shearling trend early on in the season, and Bloomingdale’s has bought “tons of down.”
Down jackets in a variety of lengths and styles are leading the charge in outerwear sales at Lord & Taylor, according to Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising. The retailer has sold out of maxi-length ones — roughly about 48 to 50 inches. Shorter versions from Calvin Klein and Kenneth Cole have also been “really hot sellers,” Olexa said.
In general, Lord & Taylor shoppers have been buying a wide range of walker-length coats with One Madison and Calvin Klein being sought-after labels. Wool jackets and coats, as well as angora, camel hair, cashmere and alpaca styles have also been strong. Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole Reaction, Larry Levine and Marvin Richards are “driving the business,” Olexa said.
Another bright spot for Lord & Taylor has been the Portrait label, which offers “luxury looks at affordable prices,” she said. In terms of color, shoppers have been buying brown, olive, camel and, of course, black and white, she said.
L.L. Bean, the Portland, Maine-based mail order and retail business, has also seen strong sales for down coats and jackets. Karen Needham, product line manager for casual outerwear, said, “We’ve certainly had some ups and downs like everyone else has with the hurricanes. But we’ve done really well, and down has been important.”
L.L. Bean offers down in three ranges: Reversible Down retailing from $49 to $69, Ultrawarm retailing around $139 and the high-end Baxter State parka at $199. To jazz up the category, the company is offering some styles with removable hoods, fake-fur trims and longer lengths.
“Down sold well early and has continued to do so,” said Needham. “It’s a core part of our business. We keep adding pieces to our down category. There’s a warmth factor — down keeps you warm.”
Fake shearling outerwear is another area that has done well for L.L. Bean. All offerings are washable, and retail prices range from $69 to $149, with the bulk of the sales being around the $119 mark.
Rainwear has also been a hit, especially with East Coast residents who have seen their share of rainfall in recent months, Needham said. H2 Off, mid-length raincoats with wool or mesh linings have been bestsellers since the liners provide some warmth, she said.
In Boston, December’s arctic gusts helped drive coat sales at local retailers. Independent retailers withstood unseasonably mild November temperatures and were rewarded, as the first snowflakes arrived, practically on cue, on Black Friday.
Alan Bilzerian, owner of a luxury boutique by the same name on Newbury Street, said, “Awareness [of outerwear] only comes when necessity kicks in.”
It’s turned out to be another strong year for fur at Bilzerian: Alexander McQueen’s $6,000 moleskin coats are selling, as are light-colored fox skins (cream shading to brown) that Bilzerian made as private label. As for popular silhouettes, customers “want [coats] fitted to the body. They want a very shaped torso. [Coats] can come in major lengths but they should have very high armholes and very slender arms,” he said.
Down the street at Marc Jacobs, knee-length coats have been selling well, particularly the Sgt. Pepper in burgundy with light pink and black accents at $598 on the Marc by Marc Jacobs floor, said manager Mary Nobile-King. One flight above, in the collection store, a men’s wear-inspired, long belted cashmere coat at $3,900 has been the most popular style.
Jasmine Sola, a 15-store operation, has also been successful in getting shoppers to spend top dollar on outerwear. Buyer Stacey Manganella said, “We held on and didn’t mark down. In this area, you can sell a coat until the last moment of winter.”
Ugg nylon quilted bomber jackets, from $198 to $298, have done well at Jasmine Sola. Curly lamb wrap coats, to be paired with jeans or cocktail dresses, have proven popular, as have tweed and plaid trenchcoats with fake-fur colors, at $98 to $198.
At Parisian, a 40-store operation based in Birmingham, Ala., shoppers’ interest in novelty items, especially metallic and fur embellishment, are driving outerwear sales, according to Toni Browning, chief executive officer. Bestsellers include long wool coats and leather jackets, embellished with metallic or copper trim.
“The key is that coats have to have something on them, something of interest,” Browning said.
— With contributions from Katherine Bowers, Boston, and Georgia Lee, Atlanta