Retailers are keeping cool when it comes to markdown madness.

Even this past Memorial Day weekend, the traditional trigger for major spring clearances, stores appeared to take a more measured approach to markdowns than that seen last holiday season and earlier this year. And it may stay that way for the summer.

This story first appeared in the May 27, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Promotions through Memorial Day weekend appeared to be ‘deals not steals’ geared at specific categories,” Todd Slater, managing director and specialty retail, apparel and footwear analyst at Lazard Capital Markets, wrote in a research report Tuesday. “Fewer promotions indicate May is on track.”

“It’s sort of moderated. I don’t see anything improving greatly,” said one retail chief executive. “There’s been nothing as momentous as someone knocking down everything in the store

70 percent before Thanksgiving,” referring to Saks Fifth Avenue’s dramatic clearances last holiday season. “It’s really difficult to sell at full price. People have been marking down, but it’s been a little more subtle and not as blatant.”

Given the poor economy, retailers have been marking down spring merchandise almost since it hit the floor in January, offering one-day sales, private events or other promotions and have been fairly successful in getting inventories in line with demand. This month has been marked by steadily increasing markdowns and merchandise deals. Retailers realize they are by no means out of the woods and the vast majority are yielding negative same-store sales results. Business is worst at the high end, and best at a handful of off-pricers, outlets and low-price stores such as The TJX Cos. Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Yet the general tone has changed. There’s none of the despair and desperation that characterized the fourth quarter and early 2009 when store traffic screeched to a halt and retailers responded with chaotic promoting. The price cutting now seems more planned and organized and there’s a growing sense coming from the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and other big retailers that business has bottomed out despite the rising unemployment rate.

Memorial Day weekend, according to store executives and analysts, was buoyed by some pent-up demand; many buy-one, get-one free deals [known as BOGOs] at youth specialty stores; steep markdowns up to 70 or 75 percent in select categories at department stores, and near ideal weather conditions, particularly in the Northeast.

“Going into Memorial Day, we saw a big pickup in promotional activity and a big pickup in traffic. That tells me there was ground to be made up,” said Amy Noblin, research analyst, Pali Capital. However, “Retailers continue to work through clearance merchandise fairly well as promotional breadth moves down in many cases.”

Noblin noted that Aéropostale Inc. extended its BOGO promotion from tanks and camis to shorts and polos; American Eagle Outfitters Inc. stayed at a similar promotional breadth, even with the arrival of the summer update floor set, and Zumiez saw “a drastic reduction in depth of markdowns compared with previous visits; however, the store still remains promotional.”

“It depends on the player, but my sense is that traffic last weekend was flattish,” said one retail ceo of a specialty chain. “For the month, it may have been down a few points, but it’s looking a little better.”

In addition, comparisons are fairly easy, as Slater noted. He said the retail group faces a 1.4 percent comp in May (except Wal-Mart) and that specialty stores are up against a negative 7 percent in May, while department stores cycle negative 3.1 percent in May.

Macy’s staged a 25 to 75 percent off storewide sale with an extra 15 percent off coupon for selected items. Bloomingdale’s offered an extra 40 percent off almost all permanently reduced women’s fashion, making for 50 to 75 percent off, and 25 to 40 percent off swim, sandals and a selection of designer handbags. Nordstrom started its traditional half-year sale at 33 percent off and higher for select items.

Henri Bendel offered up to 60 percent off a large selection of apparel and accessories.

However, major retailers don’t expect price promotions to reach the levels they did late last year. “I certainly don’t anticipate the kinds of aggressive markdowns we were seeing last fall, largely because you don’t have the same kind of supply-and-demand situation,” Saks’ chairman and chief executive officer Stephen I. Sadove said last week, while the store’s president and chief merchandising officer Ron Frasch added, “Markdown dollars were very much in control. We have been very cautious with the promotional portion of our business. We have every hope of running a normal pattern of promotions this quarter.”

Earlier this month, Macy’s ceo Terry Lundgren said retailers have returned a “pretty regular promotional cadence,” similar to spring 2008. “Supply and demand is back in order again.”

Michael Celestino, executive vice president of stores at Barneys New York, characterized the Memorial Day weekend’s business as “pretty much on par with the trend for the season.”

As far as Barneys’ private sale offering 40 percent off selected merchandise for a week through Memorial Day, Celestino said, “We got a good response. It was what we expected. People are still being motivated by sale. The private sale pretty much followed the normal cadence of our markdown strategy at this point. Items and percentage [discounts] were pretty normal with what we typically do in a normal season.” Barneys will run final markdowns in July in advance of its warehouse sale in August.

Even on Madison Avenue, where the designer business is hurting and customers aren’t satisfied with markdown levels, there is some light ahead. Shipments are coming in earlier than a year ago, potentially spurring traffic. “Our stores are ready for newness,” said Diane Levbarg of Missoni. “Ninety percent of all pre-fall Missoni is ready to be shipped, in time for the beginning of June. I am very pleased with our production department in Milan.”