Byline: Ira P. Schneiderman

NEW YORK — Predicting the fortunes of the outerwear season is as difficult as, well, predicting the weather.
Will consumers buy this season, or make do with last year’s fuzzy wool coat? Will they go for sporty, functional, basic or luxury? And will they wait for sales or shop early for the best selection? Finally, will they choose a department store or a discounter, specialty store or off-pricer?
WWD commissioned a national telephone poll to try to get some answers. The survey found 43 percent of women indicated they planned to make an outerwear purchase this season. The winning category: rainwear.
The survey was conducted Sept. 15-19 by International Communications Research, a market research firm in Media, Pa. It polled 278 women in households with annual incomes of more than $25,000. The sample provides a nationally representative and projectable estimate of 55.3 million women age 18 or older. The average annual household income was $55,380.
Topping the outerwear shopping list was a raincoat or jacket; 15 percent of the full sample planned to buy one. Seniors were the age group mostly likely to purchase rainwear (27 percent). By income, the group most likely to buy in this category were shoppers from households in the $40,000-$49,999 bracket.
Second in demand was a sport jacket in nylon or cotton (13 percent), most frequently on the shopping lists of younger respondents, age18 to 34. In third place was a short wool coat or car coat, the choice of about 10 percent. Also selected by more than 9 percent was a functional sports jacket-ski jacket, again favored by those 18 to 34, but also by respondents over 65.
About 6 percent of those surveyed said they planned to purchase a leather, suede or shearling coat. This garment was heavily favored by the youngest segment. Another 7 percent said they planned to buy a traditional long wool coat. Six percent of respondents indicated they would purchase a trendy fashion coat. And, again, the group most interested in the latest outerwear styles was shoppers 18 to 34.
Consumers reported they were most likely to purchase their outerwear in a major chain like Sears or J.C. Penney (28 percent) or in a department store like Macy’s or Dillard’s (25 percent).
About 19 percent said they would buy at an off-price store like Burlington Coat Factory or a manufacturer’s outlet. Shoppers most favoring these retailers tended to be women over 55. While shoppers who said they would make purchases at discount stores (16 percent) were in every age group, the strongest response came from those 45 to 54 (25 percent).
Eight percent chose specialty chains like Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue, scattered across all age groups.
Timing has for years been a bitter point among outerwear makers, who lament that their products are in the stores too early and subject to heavy markdowns just when the weather is getting colder in most parts of the country. But most consumers (42 percent) said they buy whenever they want or need a coat, regardless of timing.
Still, nearly a quarter of the sample wait until after Columbus Day, the traditional price-slashing date, to take advantage of sales. The survey revealed that 16 percent planned to purchase outerwear in January or February to take advantage of store clearances, while 12 percent shop early — before Oct. 1 — to get the best selection. This group was heavily made up of 45-to-54-year-old shoppers. A small group (6 percent) buy “around holiday time.”
As for attitudes toward designer names or brands, 45 percent of shoppers said they buy based on style, regardless of brand. This was true in all age and income groups, put particularly so among the 18-to-34 year-olds (54 percent).
Budget concerns drive 22 percent of shoppers, while 17 percent buy outerwear strictly for function. Function is particularly important among seniors; 27 percent cited it.
Eight percent said they go after a top brand because it will last longer. Only 2 percent of those polled said they purchase a top name in outerwear because of the fashion element. Store planners might find the results present a fuzzy picture for forecasting fall business. Retailers can promote to the earlier buyers, the sales-savvy or the fashion-oriented, but the best insurance for outerwear sales is still an early cold snap.