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Dads can blame the lingering recession for what is expected to be a subdued Father’s Day this year — and they shouldn’t expect a shirt or a sweater.

Although there are signs the economy has stabilized and retailers are expecting a bit of a pickup in the second half, consumers are still reluctant to part with their hard-earned dollars.

This story first appeared in the June 18, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

According to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation, Americans are expected to spend an average of $90.89 on Father’s Day gifts this year, down slightly from the $94.54 they spent in 2008. Although the figure may be less, total spending is still expected to reach $9.4 billion for the holiday.

Amid any retail rush, though, apparel may not be the number-one choice. NRF’s 2009 Father’s Day Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch, found consumers are expected to spend the most — $1.9 billion — on a special outing, such as dinner or a sporting event. Apparel is expected to account for $1.3 billion in sales, with socks, slacks and the proverbial necktie among the items expected to garner the most attention.

“Along with the usual ties, gift givers will be looking into items that dad can enjoy with the whole family,” said NRF president and chief executive officer Tracy Mullin. “Retailers will offer specials on new grill sets, sporting and gardening equipment and even electronics as the holiday rolls around.”

Gift cards will also be popular, with $1.2 billion expected to be spent on them, followed by electronics ($1 billion), books or CDs ($548 million), home improvement items ($522 million), and sporting goods ($502 million).

Discounters and department stores are expected to be the location of choice for most consumers, with 33.9 percent saying they plan to hit a discount store and 33.7 percent opting for department stores. Specialty apparel stores were chosen by only 6.1 percent of consumers.

As for whether the weather will drive consumers to the malls, Planalytics, the weather forecasters, are expecting cooler temperatures along the coasts this year, while the interior regions will be warm and humid. As a result, the firm said, “typical summer product categories, such as short-sleeved shirts and shorts, will have muted year-over-year demand in many locations,” including the Midwest, East Coast and California.

Not surprisingly, department stores have been promoting aggressively for the holiday. Macy’s has been running newspaper ads offering 25 to 50 percent off apparel and gifts. And a recent circular from Kohl’s touted: “Take an extra 15 percent, or 20 percent or 30 percent off everything (yes, we mean everything!)” when using the company’s credit card. J.C. Penney was offering polo shirts for $9.99, up to 50 percent off swimwear and 25 percent off socks on its Web site. The retailer was also running a golf sweepstakes, where customers could enter their dads into a contest to win a trip to Atlanta this fall for a PGA Tour championship.

Meijer’s has hooked up with Levi’s for a special Father’s Day promotion. Through Sunday, customers who purchase a pair of Signature by Levi Strauss & Co. $20 jeans receive a free Tombstone Original frozen pizza. “What’s more American than jeans and pizza?” said Edward Bourelly, marketing manager for Signature.

Jos. A. Bank, which has had success with innovative promotions for months now, is continuing the trend for Father’s Day. Its Web site was offering “executive suits” that originally sold for $550 for $199, with an additional $25 off. “We do what we need to do,” chief executive Neal Black told WWD following the firm’s most recent earnings report. “Right now, in a tough economy, we have been able to do marketing that breaks through and stimulates the customer to buy product. And because we source so well, we can be aggressive on price and still make money.” Black said the company “listens to our customer all the time. They’re responsive to value pricing.”

Other retailers aren’t being quite as promotional. Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer for Brooks Brothers, said that although “select items” are being promoted, the store is not planning to start its semiannual sale until the Monday after Father’s Day. “We’ve adjusted our buy and our inventory is significantly less than it was a year ago,” he said. “So there isn’t the same pressure to promote like there was at Christmas.”

Amendola believes Father’s Day sales will ultimately be OK, but the business will come late. “The consumer is coming out and shopping for holidays and special events at the last minute,” Amendola said. And you have to give them a reason to buy. The trend this season is casual sportswear. It’s definitely a sport shirt season, especially those that bridge dress and sport shirts, like linen. The traditional dress shirt business is still good, but ties haven’t been strong for a lot of Father’s Days now.” He noted consumers are leaning toward “practical” items and steering clear of anything that might be considered “extravagant. That’s the era we’re living in. Practicality is the word.”

The Darien Sport Shop in Darien, Conn., is also steering clear of promotional pricing. “Considering the environment,” said Tom Whitney, general merchandise manager of men’s wear, “the men’s business has held its own.” Sportswear is outperforming tailored clothing, “which has been difficult,” he said. But “novelty and newness” are selling, such as colorful polo shirts from Robert Redd and technical golf shirts from Peter Millar and Bobby Jones.

Although Whitney said shoppers are “still very cautious,” the company has seen a steady improvement since April. “The trend started improving and it has continued into May and June,” he said. “We’ve definitely seen a blip.”

John Bartlett, who is designing men’s wear for the Liz Claiborne brand, opened a Pops Shop within his West Village boutique earlier this week to offer customers a lower-priced option for Father’s Day. The store’s windows and awning also touted the arrival of the shop, which will remain through Father’s Day. “We’ve actually been selling the Claiborne by John Bartlett line alongside my own collection since the beginning of March,” he said.

Top sellers include brightly colored polo shirts for $49 and plaid or seersucker shorts for $59, he said. Blazers are $139 to $189, which “is the price of a John Bartlett shirt,” he said. “It’s an easy buy for dads.”

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