NEW YORK — Despite sluggish retail apparel business in April and May, Wall Street analysts expect to see moderate gains in the second half, driven by clearer fashion trends.

“I don’t think we’re going to see apparel sales rocketing off, but sales gains should show good improvement on somewhat better demand, and with the help of weak comparisons against last year,” said Thomas H. Tashjian at First Manhattan Co.

For the first quarter, combined profits for a group of 50 retailers rose 21.3 percent and sales increased 13.2 percent, but much of the sales growth stemmed from furniture, consumer electronics and other durable items, a trend seen throughout 1993.

Looking ahead, analysts said clearer fashion trends, such as more relaxed and feminine looks and short skirts, should entice customers into the stores.

“It’s been a mixed bag recently. You could buy anything. Whenever there’s a fashion trend, there’s a reason to come to the stores,” said Peter N. Schaeffer at Dillon Read & Co.

Schaeffer expects to see a third-quarter surge for cold-weather apparel such as coats, flannels and heavy wool items, if only because many consumers will remember last winter’s bitter cold.

He thinks there’ll be some apparel improvement in the second half, but doesn’t see a strong overall trend until spring 1995, when he expects women’s sportswear to make a comeback.

“I still think there’s a demand for durables that has yet to be filled,” Schaeffer said, adding that consumers tend to hold back on discretionary spending after buying a house or a car.

“It’s in a state of flux,” said Jeffrey Edelman of C.J. Lawrence about apparel sales. “I expect to see a slowing rate of purchases of durable goods and a catch-up in nondurables this year. People seem to be very upbeat for fall.”

Sales are expected to continue strong in the upscale apparel retail segment, but other retailers’ bottom lines are also expected to improve against weak comparisons a year ago, analysts said.

Tashjian expects Nordstrom and the Neiman Marcus stores division to have a strong year, noting that many of their upscale competitors “have fallen by the wayside in the recession.”

Nordstrom is expected to earn $2.19 to $2.35 a share this year, against $1.71 a year earlier. Neiman Marcus Group is expected to show flat earnings of 49 cents for its year ended June 1994, due to a charge to restructure Contempo Casuals. For June 1995, Tashjian expects NMG to earn 70 cents a share.

Schaeffer expects Ann Taylor and Talbots to continue performing well, reflecting more consumer confidence among upper to moderate customers. Ann Taylor should earn $1.32 to $1.40 a share against 71 cents, while estimates for Talbots are pegged at around $1.44 to $1.50, up from $1.20. Tashjian said that while Spiegel’s Eddie Bauer chain should continue to perform well, it will start running against tough comparisons. He expects mail order to make a big contribution to the bottom line in the second half. Spiegel’s estimates for 1994 range from 86 cents to 90 cents a share, versus 68 cents.

The Gap is projected to earn about $2.05 to $2.20 this year, up from $1.78 in 1993. Schaeffer said The Gap’s results should improve on tight expense controls and an improved merchandising mix.

The Limited’s earnings estimates range from $1.17 to $1.40, against $1.08 in 1993. Despite strong sales at its Bath & Body Works, Structure men’s wear and Victoria’s Secret divisions, overall sales continue to reflect weakness in the women’s apparel chains, which account for about 66 percent of Limited’s sales. Edelman said a strong second half depends on a turnaround at the Limited Stores and Express divisions.

Analysts expect the Sears Merchandise Group and J.C. Penney Co. to continue to grab market share from specialty stores and department stores.

Sears’ profits are expected to fall to $3.60 to $3.80 a share this year from $4.33, due to Allstate’s $950 million provision for earthquake claims. For 1995, Sears’ bottom line is expected to bounce back to a range of $5.10 to $5.40. Penney’s is expected to net $4.10 to $4.30 against $3.55.

Schaeffer said Sears Merchandise Group’s gross margins should continue to improve as the company increases its apparel offerings. Penney’s continues to benefit from Sears’ exit from the catalog business and a good response to its private label offerings.

Federated Department Stores is expected to earn from $1.63 to $1.70 versus $1.45, mainly due to strict cost controls. Edelman said Federated plans to more aggressively boost sales with higher inventories and increased advertising, but most of the bottom line improvement will come from cost savings.

May Department Stores is expected to earn $3 to $3.05 a share versus $2.65. Edelman expects May to benefit from consistently solid sales increases and tight expense controls.

For Dayton Hudson Corp., estimates range from $5.55 to $5.90 a share this year, up from $4.77 in 1993. Earnings should be driven by continuing strong performance by its Target discount chain, but analysts also expect better results at the department store division and Mervyn’s.

Dillard Department Stores should earn $2.42 to $2.45 versus $2.14 a year earlier, while Carter Hawley Hale is expected to break even this year against a 79-cent loss in 1993.

Mercantile Stores should earn an estimated $2.70 this year against $2.35, and Kohl’s Department Stores, $1.86 to $1.90 a share versus $1.52.

In the discount group, Wal-Mart Stores is estimated to earn from $1.17 to $1.23 a share, up from $1.02 last year. Edelman said gains should be fueled by a strong performance of the core discount chain and a turnaround at Sam’s Wholesale Clubs, which has suffered 11 straight months of same-store sales declines.

Kmart Corp., which is going through a massive rebuilding process, is expected to net $1.40 to $1.55 versus a depressed $1.15 in 1993.

Other notable discounter performances are Caldor Corp., with estimates at around $3 a share versus $2.50; Bradlees, $1.65 against $1.19, and Dollar General Corp., $1.40 against $1.13.

TJX’s estimates range from $1.75 to $1.83 against $1.62. Analysts expect to see a stronger performance from Chadwick’s spring catalog, which hurt TJX’s first-quarter results, as well as improved apparel sales at the T.J. Maxx and Hit or Miss chains.

Charming Shoppes is also expected to bounce back, with estimates of some 85 cents a share for the full year, up from 70 cents.

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