Byline: Ira P. Schneiderman

NEW YORK — Catalogs and major chains — Penney’s, Sears, Mervyn’s and Kohl’s among them — were cooking during the first nine months of 1996, particularly in men’s wear.
It was a robust period where the retail industry’s performance in apparel easily outpaced the 1995 performance, according to the NPD American Shoppers Panel, a service of NPD Group, the Port Washington, N.Y., consumer research firm.
Catalogs led the parade, posting the largest double-digit gains through September this year. Major chains such as Penney’s placed second in gains, while discount stores produced increases that outperformed the market overall and major department stores posted modest increases.
Off-price retailers were off, chalking up increases that fell slightly below the industry trend. Specialty chains were also off, generally failing to match last year’s performance. NPD reported total women’s apparel sales, from January through September, rose 4.7 percent to $58 billion from $56.8 billion.
Total apparel sales increased 5.8 percent to $111 billion, up from $105 billion a year ago, supporting perceptions by retailers that an apparel turnaround and solid Christmas are in the works.
Men’s wear gained 8.3 percent for the January-September period, rising to $32 billion from $29 billion, according to the NPD panel, which tracks sales through a monthly survey of 16,000 nationally representative households.
Girls’ apparel rose 1.3 percent to $6.1 billion from $6 billion; boys’ apparel gained 2.7 percent to $7.9 billion from $7.7 billion.
Sales growth for the nine months was driven by high- and low-income households, noted Peter Simon, director of the NPD panel. Compared with a year ago, households with incomes over $60,000 increased their purchasing by 13.1 percent, spending of households in the under-$15,000 bracket grew by 7.1 percent and that of households earning $15,000-$24,999 jumped 12 percent, he said.
Declines were shown for households with incomes between $25,000-$39,999, Simon noted. Purchasing of women’s apparel by upper-middle-income households, $40,000 to $59,999, grew 0.9 percent, he said.
Discounters, which had the best record among all classes of trade in the first nine months of 1995, did not match that performance in the corresponding 1996 period. However, they continued to gain share by increasing apparel business at a faster rate than the market is growing, according to NPD.
In the nine months, sales of women’s apparel at discounters rose 6.5 percent to $10 billion, representing 16.4 percent of the total women’s apparel market. A year ago, discounters represented 16.1 percent of the market.
Catalog and direct mail companies posted the largest sales increases in women’s apparel, with volume up 15.2 percent to $4.7 billion. When total apparel sales are considered, catalogs showed an even stronger 20.4 percent gain to $6.9 billion.
The major chain group, which includes Penney’s, Sears, Kohl’s, Mervyn’s and Ward’s, showed a 9 percent increase in the nine months to $8.5 billion, up from $7.8 billion. This compares with a less than 1 percent gain last year.
Off-price retailers continue to outperform the market, with volume up 5.5 percent to $3.9 billion from $3.7 billion. Factory outlets did not outperform the market, rising 3.9 percent to $2.2 billion from $2.1 billion.
Consumer purchases of women’s apparel at major department stores increased 3.2 percent to $12.1 billion from $11.8 billion. The growth of women’s sales for all department stores was 2 percent or $12.7 billion, up from $12.5 billion.
Specialty stores as a group were off 0.6 percent from year-earlier totals to $15.5 billion. The nine-month apparel performance of retailers is somewhat different from the overall performance. For example, apparel sales at specialty stores gained 2.8 percent, while specialty chains overall rose 5.2 percent in the January-September period. Apparel sales at department stores gained 2.1 percent, while overall sales at major department stores rose 3.2 percent.
Over the nine months, NPD data found deflation in women’s apparel stopped. Unit sales rose 2 percent, compared with a 4.7 percent increase in dollar-value sales.
Sales by product category varied widely, Simon said. Bras led sales in women’s wear in the nine months and were up 12.7 percent. Designer and better jeans drove the dollar growth in the women’s jeans categories overall, which increased 11.3 percent.
Other categories showing double-digit sales increases: dress slacks/pants, 12.7 percent; dresses, 10.5 percent; shapewear, 14 percent, and sleepwear, 10.4 percent.
He also pointed out that purchases of junior apparel grew 7.4 percent, misses’ gained 4.8 percent and large sizes increased 5.2 percent, but petites were off by 10.1 percent.