NEW YORK — The battle for the hearts and wallets of fall apparel customers is off and running.

Lord & Taylor broke its fall sale on Wednesday, taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times to announce “Advance Notice” of fall markdowns from Wednesday through Sunday.

L&T has taken the opportunity to preview a new advertising look. The image of an Asian model in a graphic black-and-white dress shot against a blood-red background is a departure from the company’s signature feminine garden party frocks and flowery script logo.

Asked if the image portends a new look for ad campaigns, Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president at Lord & Taylor, said, “We certainly will have a point of view. The ads are probably going to look like this. We’ve been moving in this direction.”

The competition for fall has grown increasingly urgent, especially among some high-end retailers. Fashion e-commerce sites have made fall merchandise easily accessible, so stores are using more sophisticated means to get customers into stores.

Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies for Kurt Salmon Associates, said of Lord & Taylor, “The ad is very fashionable and doesn’t have a hint of promotional zing to it. They’re going forward very enthusiastically. I talked to some people at L&T and there’s a pretty big spirit.”

Lord & Taylor, which Federated Department Stores sold last month to NRDC Equity Partners for $1.2 billion, went into markdown mode before Nordstrom’s anniversary sale. That event, which starts Friday, has long been the chain’s most successful sale, eclipsing the day after Thanksgiving, a spokeswoman said. Although Nordstrom has no store in Manhattan, the chain competes in other markets with Lord & Taylor. Still, some retail analysts wondered how much of a threat L&T could muster.

Robert Buchanan, an analyst at A.G. Edwards, said he didn’t believe Lord & Taylor posed a threat. “They have negative momentum,” he said. “Saks Fifth Avenue also has negative momentum.”

This year, “I thought L&T got a hold of Nordstrom’s calendar,” said Walter Loeb, a retail consultant.

This story first appeared in the July 13, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

For the first time, Nordstrom is reaching out to its highest-spending customers and inviting them in to pre-select merchandise before the start of the sale. “Those of our customers who are not eligible are able to still work with our salespeople to have the items pulled on the first day of the anniversary sale,” the spokeswoman said, adding that shoppers line up outside the downtown Seattle flagship well before the store opens at 7 a.m. for the sale.

Andrew R. Jennings, president and chief operating officer of Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises, blanched at the idea of marking down fall merchandise in July. “No, we do not do that,” he said. “That’s not part of our strategy. We certainly do have fall merchandise in our stores, which is well presented. Our sales staff and customers are excited about it and enjoying purchasing it. Fall is coming in on a daily basis.”

Nor does Neiman Marcus run a fall preview discount. “Sales are used as liquidation devices, not as marketing tools,” a spokeswoman said. The company’s Last Call sale of fall 2005-2006 and spring 2006 will soon begin in stores. It’s already in effect at the Web site, which trumpets as much as 75 percent off.

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