NEW YORK — Cardigans, knit tops, long skirts and khakis are ringing up sales in moderate sportswear departments across the country.
Shoppers are looking for casual, versatile looks that can be worn for work or weekends, according to a check of 10 retailers.
“That whole go-everywhere-wear-everywhere look is what’s selling,” said Beverly Rice, senior vice president of fashion and merchandising strategy for Jacobson’s Florida and Midwest divisions.
With more labels and increased inventory, Macy’s East has highlighted key items and is seeing gains in spring sales that are “hovering near a double- digit increase,” according to Kathy Bufano, executive vice president of merchandising.
Long skirts and short-sleeved sweaters or cardigans are this spring’s “uniform,” she said. Retail prices range from $20 to $40 for each category.
Other casual items such as cotton shorts and linen blend jackets are also bestsellers.
For spring, Macy’s broadened its offerings for Sag Harbor and Alfred Dunner and introduced Koret and Leslie Fay moderate sportswear to some of its stores.
In addition to Gloria Vanderbilt, which has been an “outstanding” resource this spring, Cathy Daniels, Jantzen, Bice and one of Macy’s private labels, Style & Co., have also been standouts, Bufano said.
“We’re offering the moderate customer more choices. Perhaps we haven’t done as good a job in the past,” she said. “Status and better areas have gotten a lot of attention.”
Knowing “there are many traditional moderate customers in Macy’s every day who need to be satisfied,” the retailer has made a concerted effort to develop that business, Bufano said.
Like Macy’s East, Jacobson’s is seeing gains near double-digits for both of its divisions, Rice said. “Our structured business is about even with last year,” she said. “The gains are being made in the soft dressing. Our gang thinks this will translate into continued sales gains for the fall.”
For spring, the retailer offered more colors and prints for two-piece dressing in rayon prints. It’s been a hit with shoppers, Rice said. Jackets retail at $98 and skirts and pants are in the $60 to $80 range.
Surya, Faith and Cynthia Max and other California resources are fueling spring sales, Rice added.
At J.C. Penney, casual and career looks are driving the business, said Chuck Foughty, divisional vice president for women’s.
Current bestsellers include tops from Penney’s St. John’s Bay private label; shorts and pants from Levi’s Dockers; sportswear ensembles from Sag Harbor and Alfred Dunner, and sleeveless cotton sweaters from another of its private labels, Yarnworks.
Penney’s touted its casual summer styles in a recent newspaper ad that reached 45 million households. The ad offered a variety of $12.99 items, including navy and lime ethnic-print rompers from Liberty; fuchsia, red and gold African-print camp shirts and regular shirts from Caribou, and madras shortalls — shorts with overall bibs — from St. John’s Bay.
Khakis, cargo pants, T-shirts and tanks from a variety of vendors are also hot looks this spring at Penney, Foughty said.
“We had a very good May with mid-single-digit gains,” he said. “June is on plan with low single-digit increases.” At Proffitt’s, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based department store chain, sales of moderate sportswear are 3 percent ahead of last year, but down 3 percent from plan, according to Rick Thomas, divisional vice president of moderate and junior sportswear.
Spring business is expected to increase 5 percent, due largely to strong June sales.
“Moderate is becoming more casual-driven, upscale and fashion-oriented,” Thomas said. “Industry-wide, department stores need to offer constant newness, rather than the same old dumb-dumb product. We need to distinguish ourselves from discounters.”
Consumers are responding to better fabrics, such as cotton piques, garment-dyed goods and textures. Sales of casualwear such as twill pants and other attire appropriate for casual Fridays have shown a 17 percent increase, Thomas said. With prices in the $40 range, Savanne’s twill and denim pants and skirts have been bestsellers.
Shorts sets and active playwear are up 20 percent. Denim has been strong, particularly related separates with vests and skirts. Lee is Proffitt’s primary vendor in that area.
Two resources, Alfred Dunner and Norton Collections, had an off year, said Thomas, although Norton’s Studio line performed well. Spring sweaters, which were expected to do well, were also disappointing.
After two years of strong growth, Sag Harbor’s business has leveled off somewhat, said Thomas, who added: “We like the direction of the company. There are broader assortments, more knits, two-piece sweater sets and a more fashion-forward direction.”
Shoppers at Bolton’s store at 5 East 34th Street, here, have been buying basic pants, cardigans and shirts instead of more seasonal items such as lightweight dresses, skirts and sleeveless tops, a spokeswoman said. Black, white and earth tones are the most popular colors.
Key price ranges are $20 to $40 for shirts, $30 to $50 for cardigans and $20 to $60 for pants. Shoppers are buying Harve Benard, Tess and Basic Request for tops, Kitti for cardigans and St. D’Angelo and Harve Benard for pants.
In recent weeks, rain and cool temperatures have deterred many shoppers from buying summer items, the spokeswoman said.
“When the season is like this, they don’t have the enthusiasm to shop,” she said.
At Macy’s West, “casual has come on strong in the second quarter, and it’s really been driven by commodity-type business — Dockers, twinsets, sleeveless T’s, stretch denim, washed linen, garment dye and dresses,” said Sally Katz, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of moderate sportswear and swimwear.
For casual looks, Style & Co. is an important label. For career items, shoppers are opting for soft dressing and linens from Clio, John Paul Richards and Sag Harbor.
At Gottschalks, sales have been down due to inclement weather, said Gary Gladding, executive vice president of merchandising.
“The weather has just turned. That’s good,” he said. The retailer’s knit business is slow, with many customers opting for embroidered woven tops in novelty fabrics like seersucker, gauze and chambray, he said. Oakhill is a leading resource.
For bottoms, the standout is private label broomstick skirts; in two-piece casual dressing, private label lightweight denim is key; in the career zone, linen blends are selling from Sag Harbor, Tropism and John Paul Richards.”
Mervyn’s shoppers are buying private label sarongs, bodysuits, skorts, shorts, tanks and twinsets, according to Lisa Black, a trend manager. Vegetable tones and neutrals are key colors.
Casual items retail around $10 and career looks retail for $20.
Jones New York, Jones Sport, Liz & Co., Sag Harbor and Alfred Dunner are key labels at Milwaukee-based Carson Pirie Scott, said Ed Carroll, executive vice president of marketing.
“For summer, lightweight knits with a fashion edge are bestsellers from a range of vendors,” he said.
At Elder Beerman, a 48-unit operation based in Dayton, Ohio, shoppers like the looks of knit jumpers and dresses, linen overalls, printed button-down shirts and short-sleeved striped knit tops, a spokeswoman said.

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