Tried-and-true brands — comforting to a recession-worn public — were the most sought after by shoppers in the third quarter, including Levi Strauss, which shot up from last place a year ago to become a top-rated apparel player, according to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index.

This story first appeared in the November 17, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Joining Levi’s as number one in the apparel category was Jones Apparel (in a tie) and, in other categories, Cadillac and Lexus (a tie), Anheuser-Busch and Heinz, among others in the 15-year-old index, a measure of brands bought most often by U.S. consumers.

“Levi’s has usually not done well in this index; it’s usually been at the very bottom of the apparel category,” said Claes Fornell, founder of the index and Donald C. Cook professor of business administration at the University of Michigan. “Consumers perceive the quality of Levi’s as being much better than last year.”

The response to Levi Strauss put it at 83 on the customer satisfaction meter, up 6.4 percent from 78 a year ago. That’s just below Levi’s all-time high of 84 in 1994 — and the first time the brand has held that much appeal for the 100,000 people polled annually about their buying habits in the 15 years since then. The satisfaction index is pegged to a baseline of 100.

The classic denim brand has been lifted, in part, by its optimistic, youthful, pioneering “Go Forth” marketing message, said spokeswoman Erica Archambault. “It is a reminder that Levi’s are jeans of people who work hard, are self-reliant and independent.”

Also clicking with shoppers, Archambault said, are “innovative” finishes, such as Levi’s “rips and repairs, destructed look.”

Sales of Levi’s men’s and women’s products were up during the third quarter, even as overall revenue at Levi Strauss & Co. fell 6.3 percent to $1.04 billion in the three months ended Aug. 30, from $1.11 billion. The Levi’s brand accounted for 77 percent of the company’s net sales, or $2.18 billion, in the most recently completed nine months.

Like Levi Strauss, Liz Claiborne received its best customer reviews since 1994, advancing 3.8 percent to score an 82 (versus 84 in the first-ever index). Affordable offerings in Liz Claiborne’s Kate Spade and Juicy Couture collections, as well as the addition of Isaac Mizrahi to design Liz Claiborne New York, led consumers to “see more value” in the company’s apparel, Fornell said.

The view of affordability, from Claiborne’s Times Square headquarters Monday, was a different one. “For both brands, the more exclusive, higher-priced product caught consumers’ attention — Bird for Juicy Couture and Kate Spade apparel,” said Dana Stambaugh, vice president of corporate communications. “It is less so affordability and more the merchandise and brand promise.”

Despite a less-than-stellar performance in its debut by the Liz Claiborne New York collection, Stambaugh said: “The Isaac Mizrahi name and design enhanced the cachet of the brand,” and it has “opened doors for future distribution [in December] via QVC.”

Liz Claiborne’s strongest customer ratings since the early Nineties were not reflected in the firm’s third-quarter results. The company’s sales for the three months ended Oct. 3 fell 24.2 percent to $769.6 million from $1.01 billion, resulting in a net loss of $90 million.

A customer satisfaction score of 83 kept Jones Apparel atop the apparel group, although it eased 1.2 percent from an 84 in 2008. Rounding out the index’s apparel sector were: Liz Claiborne; Hanesbrands; VF Corp., parent of brands such as John Varvatos, Lee, Wrangler, Nautica and Majestic, and “All Others,” comprising an array of smaller companies. This roster has remained consistent for the past few years.

In all, 200 names, in 44 sectors of the U.S. economy, were rated by a representative group of about 100,000 consumers, based on their purchases of nondurables in the previous three months, and durable goods in the previous six to 12 months. The index stood at an aggregate 76 for the third quarter — near its historic peak — and well above its low point of 70.6 in the first quarter of 1996.

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