NEW YORK — It’s time for outerwear to heat up.

Plagued by warmer-than-usual weather through much of the country this fall, and lagging apparel sales, outerwear has been a struggle at many stores. Some have called it their worst outerwear season in years.

Amid the disappointment there have been pockets of strength, led by casual, rugged styles and colorful microfiber active looks. In addition, dressy wools and cashmeres with fake fur and real fur trim have sold well.

After a mid-season slump, the chill that has gripped the northern two-thirds of the country since Thanksgiving has given a boost to coat sales, and retailers are hopeful that this will salvage a generally disappointing and highly promotional season.

Some key observations retailers made about the season include:

Quality counts, with better-priced merchandise outperforming lower-priced goods.

Casual, rugged outerwear has been stronger than traditional career looks.

Fashion merchandise in bright colors, or with interesting fabrics or details has carried more weight this year than basic wools or leathers.

In the first week and a half of December, stores from Saks Fifth Avenue to Kmart reported that coats did well, a credit to the cold weather. For example, at Younkers, Des Moines, Iowa, coats surged 20 percent during the Dec. 5-11 period. Coats and cold-weather gear led a 10 percent gain for the week at Carson Pirie Scott, Milwaukee.

Retailers cautioned, though, that these sales are at promotional prices, and therefore not a big boon to the bottom line.

Many agree with Monroe Milstein, president and chairman of Burlington Coat Factory, who said: “The industry is doing well now, but it’s too late.”

After nearly 11 weeks of slow business, sales at Burlington Coat picked up steam at the end of November, Milstein said. Despite recent increases, the 230-unit chain does not expect to finish ahead of plan, he said.

“We have to do very big business in December,” Milstein said. “There are pockets of the country that might finish on the plus side.”

Anoraks, swings, wool peacoats, leather jackets and long wool coats are some of the bestselling items, he said.

The coat business has picked up in recent weeks at Neiman Marcus, Dallas, but it’s too soon to tell how the season will pan out.

“If the present trend continues it should be OK, but that is a huge if,” said Ralph Romberg, divisional vice president for coats.

Neiman’s has done best in classic, belted cashmere wrap coats and in casual coats with hoods.

“If it’s got a hood on it, preferably with a piece of fur on it, it sells,” said Romberg, adding both real and fake fur trims were moving. “In leather, the best silhouettes have been cleaned-up motorcycle looks. In general, short swing coats with full backs have been really good.”

Romberg seemed surprised that anoraks have continued to sell for the third year in a row.

“Every time everyone declares them dead, the customer won’t let them die,” he said. “They’re warm because they tie, and they’re flattering to every figure.”

Long fitted coats, a hot look at Neiman’s last year, “really dropped off the end of the scale this year,” said Romberg, noting disappointment in plain jackets with no waistline as well.

J.C. Penney Co., Plano, Tex., has seen business increase significantly since Thanksgiving, but still isn’t sure coat sales will meet plan.

“We expect to finish with an increase for the year, but at this point we don’t know that number,” said Connie Beckwith, buyer for misses’ wool coats. “It started out so slowly, but the next three weeks can make or break the season. We’re hoping to finish closer to plan.”

Penney’s top seller was a long double-breasted wool shawl-collar coat by Worthington, one of its private labels, followed by a long single-breasted similar style by Alorna. Penney’s also did well with a long swing coat with fur trim from Leslie Fay.

It’s been a rough season at Kmart, according to divisional vice president Rick Pellino, who attributed poor performance in outerwear to warm weather early in the season.

He said Kmart would finish up behind last year in coats.

“We lost a lot of business early, and that’s business you don’t make up,” he said. “But our inventories are below last year because we didn’t place all our open-to-buy. It’s not as bad as it could have been.”

He noted, however, that the cold snap this month has drummed up sales.

“Right now, we’re making our numbers, but it’s not as profitable,” he said. “We’ve been running tremendous promotions since right after Thanksgiving, and we’ll be off-price right through Christmas.”

Styles that have performed well at Kmart include stadium-length coats, poplin fabrics and fake-fur trims. Short jackets and denim jackets were disappointing, he said.

Long wool coats, which are sold only in select Kmart stores because of the price, also performed well. Pellino said there were no problems with price resistance in the category.

After months of unseasonably warm weather and consistent promotions, business “finally” picked up at Elder-Beerman Corp. in the second week of December, according to George Hedge, senior buyer.

While the 49-unit chain, based in Dayton, Ohio, expects to see some gains as the season winds up in the next few months, the company projects an overall decrease in outerwear sales, he said.

“This has been a real tough one. In mid-September, we started promoting coats with 30 percent to 40 percent reductions,” he said. “We were doing everything we could to get them through the doors. At one point or another, all merchandise was promoted. No one was interested.”

Barn jackets, anoraks and stadium coats by JG Hook, PA Originals, Bernardo, Forecaster, JL Colebrook, Mulberry Street and Towne by London Fog have sparked sales, Hedge said.

Some of Elder-Beerman’s private label raincoats, which originally retailed between $90 and $120, were marked down to $50. During a special three-hour promotional event, the raincoats were priced at $30, Hedge said.

“We’ve learned that our customer is more of a buy-now, wear-now customer,” Hedge said. “With later deliveries, we won’t get tied up with early inventories.”

Not all retailers are glum about the coat business, however.

Saks is having a “phenomenal” month, said Sally Pearson, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for ready-to-wear. For December, she said sales have been up 70 percent per day over last year.

“For the season-to-date, casual jackets have been up 35 percent, driven by microfibers, quilted looks, bright colors — there has been lots of exciting fashion in this category,” Pearson said.

Searle coats has been one of the hottest lines at Saks, with a 20 percent improvement this season over last year, she noted. The significant business has come in the high-end styles, including fur trims, shearlings, cashmere and cashmere blends.

“We expect to finish the season up at least 6 percent,” she said. “We’ll pick up this month what we lost in the earlier part of the season, when it was warmer.”

Basic wools were not as important this year as casual offerings, she added. An exception is peacoats, which have sold well this season, she said, because they are considered a fashion look.

Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president for fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor, said “it’s been quite a good season.”

“The weather always plays a role in outerwear, and I think business started early because people anticipated a cold winter after last year,” Olexa said. “While the weather did turn warm in November, I think there was enough newness to attract customers that offset the warm weather.”

Bestsellers have been short shearlings, microfiber outerwear with fake fur trim, faux Persian lamb coats, long wools with fake fur trim and cashmere.

At Jacobson Stores, Jackson, Mich., fur-trimmed wool coats and cashmere blend coats by Searle and Steve have sold well throughout the season, said Linda Maynard, vice president and divisional merchandise manager.

“We expect to make up a lot of ground from now until the end of February,” she said. “We’re hopeful the way things are going. It’s cold and crisp and that obviously helps sell coats.”

Down coats by JG Hook, Gallery, Perry Ellis, Fairbrooke, Anne Klein and Sanyo Carol Cohen have been top performers, she said, as have short wools from Jones New York Coats.

B.J. Hovsepian, Gallery coat and suit buyer for the Washington region of Nordstrom, Seattle, said the season has been “as good as expected, if not better.” Hovsepian, who buys for eight stores across the state, said “we’ve had shots of snow out here, which helps give customers the feeling to buy.”

Leather has been hot at Nordstrom in styles such as short swings and trenches, as have wool peacoats and long wool coats with fur trim.


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