Byline: Ira P. Schneiderman

NEW YORK — Although the economy has long been strong and retail projections are bullish, consumer purchases of women’s apparel in the first half of 1999 showed a modest 3 percent gain.
And women’s sales fell behind the 5 percent pace of the year-ago period, according to the latest findings of The NPD Group.
NPD, a marketing information service in Port Washington, N.Y., also reported that in women’s, mail-order retailers scored double-digit increases, while discounters gained 8 percent and specialty stores rose 3.5 percent.
However, all other retail sectors failed to match year-ago women’s levels, suggesting that this year’s retail bonanza hasn’t been all that fantastic in several women’s areas. The NPD figures indicate that in women’s, department stores were off 1.5 percent; factory outlets, down 2 percent, and off-price retailers slipped 3.9 percent from year-earlier levels. Direct-mail businesses, including those operated by brick-and-mortar retailers and conventional catalogs showed strong increases in the period, said Peter Simon, NPD vice president.
Compared to the first six months of last year, total apparel sales increased 3.2 percent to $81.6 billion, up from $79.1 billion. Of the total, 55.5 percent was women’s apparel, or $45.3 billion, up from $44 billion in 1998.
Men’s apparel totaled $24.1 billion, up from $23.4 billion. Boys’ reached $4.9 billion, from $4.8 billion, while girls’ rose 5 percent to $3.9 billion.Infants and toddlers’ wear had the greatest increase — 8.1 percent to $3.4 billion from $3.1 billion.
Women’s apparel sales through catalog and mail order surged 16.2 percent to $4.2 billion from $3.6 billion, according to NPD data.
While apparel purchases at discounters increased by 8 percent to $7.6 billion from $7 billion a year ago, purchases of women’s apparel at department stores declined 1.5 percent in the half, to $9.3 billion, off from $9.5 billion in 1998.
Sales at specialty stores rose 3.5 percent to $11.7 billion from $11.3 billion. Within this group, specialty chains gained 3.9 percent to $8 billion from $7.7 billion. For the January-to-June period, major chains such as J.C. Penney, Sears, Montgomery Ward, Mervyn’s and Kohl’s, rose by 1.2 percent to $6.3 billion.
Sales of apparel at off-price retailers dipped 3.9 percent according to NPD, to $2.7 billion from $2.8 billion. Purchases at factory outlets eased 2 percent to $1.2 billion. The women’s apparel mail-order business had double-digit growth to hit $4.2 billion up from $3.6 billion a year ago.
The data is based on information from the NPD American Shoppers Panel, a monthly survey of 16,000 nationally representative households.
In the first half of 1999, of every dollar spent on women apparel, 21 cents was spent in department stores; 26 cents in specialty stores, of which 18 cents was spent in specialty chains; 14 cents, major chains; 17 cents, discounters; 6 cents, off-pricers; 3 cents, factory outlets; 9 cents, direct-mail merchants and 4 cents at other outlets.
According to NPD, the top-performing category in the half was large sizes, up 8.1 percent to $12.2 billion from $11.3 billion. The petite market grew by 2.8 percent in the January-to-June period, to $1.9 billion from $1.8 billion a year ago. The largest segment, misses, edged up by 1.2 percent to $24.7 billion from $24.3 billion. NPD reported that in the period, the junior market slipped 1.9 percent to $4.3 billion from $4.4 billion last year. NPD indicates that in the first half, tops were hot. Sales of women’s tops grew by 8.8 percent to $13.2 billion, with blouses and sweaters turning in double- digit increases. The bottoms market increased only 2.3 percent to $7.7 billion, despite a 7.7 percent gain in casual slacks. Purchases of jeans, for example, grew by only 1.7 percent. Tailored clothing was off by 1.2 percent from 1998 levels. Purchases of suits, dresses, skirts and other tailored apparel totaled $12 billion in the six-month period.
Sales of outercoats and jackets slipped 6.3 percent to $1.7 billion from $1.8 billion a year ago. Intimate apparel grew by 4.9 percent, with purchases rising to $5.3 billion from $5.1 billion. The largest gains were registered by robes and loungewear, 7.3 percent, followed by bras, 7 percent; shapewear, 6.8 percent and panties, 6.8 percent.
The NPD data shows that households with incomes over $60,000 annually accounted for 46 percent of all purchases in the first six months of this year, or $20.4 billion.
This income sector increased their spending by 7.5 percent over year-earlier levels and represented about a 2 percent gain in market share.
Purchases at households with incomes between $15,000 and $24,999 rose in the first half by 4.9 percent and accounted for $4.3 billion in sales. Households with incomes between $25,000 and $39,000 increased apparel spending by 2.6 percent to total $$7.4 billion.
Apparel purchases by households with incomes from $40,000 to $59,999 were basically flat, declining 0.5 percent to account for $8.6 billion.
The NPD data also indicates increases in apparel purchasing by young and older women. Purchases by women ages 14 to 24 increased 3.9 percent, to total $6 billion. Apparel purchases by women 55 to 64 increased 8.8 percent, registering $6.3 billion. And purchases by shoppers over 65 years of age rose by 8.9 percent to $7 billion.