ECKO BUCKLES UP: Ecko Unlimited is launching women’s and men’s belts and men’s small leather goods in a licensing arrangement with Max Leather/Cipriani Accessories. Cipriani will design, manufacture and distribute the leather and fabric collection. Men’s belts will start rolling out to department and specialty stores next month, followed by women’s belts in time for holiday selling. Belts will wholesale between $10 and $17. Men’s small leather goods are scheduled to launch in fall 2005. The licensee also makes accessories for Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Nautica, Guess, Nine West, Sean John and Anne Klein.

BEARISH DOWNGRADES: Citing a lack of catalysts for the purchases of retail stocks during the “historically weak” third quarter, Bear Stearns broadlines analyst Christine Augustine downgraded shares of Federated Department Stores Inc. and May Department Stores Co. to “peer perform” from “outperform.” On Bear’s quarterly “Retail Report” card, Augustine said Federated is still considered “the best department store operator in our group,” but that “all the good news is in the stock,” including expectations of earnings improvement in the back half of the year. With regard to May, she wrote, “We expect same-store sales to lag those of its major competitors, and the proposed integration of Marshall Field’s adds risk to the story.” Federated, she noted, will continue “eyeing the landscape for potential acquisitions.” On the New York Stock Exchange, Federated shares closed down 54 cents, or 1.2 percent, at $44.21, while May’s were off 44 cents, or 1.7 percent, at $24.81. Their respective 52-week highs are $55.06 and $36.48. The Standard & Poor’s Retail Index receded 1.1 percent, ending Monday’s trading session at 375.79.

BUYBACK BUMPED UP: Federated Department Stores Inc. increased its share buyback program by $750 million, hiking its total repurchase authorization to $1.29 billion. The parent of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, among others, said Tuesday it expects to repurchase between $700 million and $900 million worth of stock in 2004. Federated has bought back 5.7 million shares so far this year, using approximately $280 million. In a related development, the company began a tender offer Tuesday to buy back its $350 million in 8.5 percent senior notes due 2010. The offer expires July 27, unless terminated early or extended, Federated said. “Given the strong cash-flow generation of our business, it is important to recognize that these actions do not limit Federated’s ability to pursue strategic investments,” said chief executive officer Terry Lundgren in a statement.

This story first appeared in the July 21, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.