NEW YORK — Is the drought really over?
With Easter four weeks away, it’s time for retailers to get into the holiday spirit and hope for the best again. Last year around this time, they were reading rebound into just about every slight sales uptick, and business subsequently collapsed.
But this year, there’s some better evidence that a turnaround could be in the making. It’s a highly probable event in a presidential election year, when retail numbers historically rise.
Among the encouraging signs:
* Luxury labels and big name brands continue to be strong sellers.
* Several major launches planned by key design houses, including Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica and Guess, are expected to stir consumer interest.
* February sales, though skewed by a later reporting period, were the best figures in more than a year. Most major department stores posted 5 to 9 percent same-store gains. And Easter falls on April 7, nine days earlier than last year, meaning March could show the kind of increases seen in February.
* Job growth is fueling optimism. As reported, the Labor Department last week said 705,000 jobs were added in February, the largest monthly gain in 13 years. In California, although the unemployment rate is still higher than the national average, 285,000 new jobs were added last year, and some officials hope employment will be back at 1990’s peak level by summer.
Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse, an off-price chain which for two years has stumbled through much of the rugged retail sales environment, was one firm that picked up significantly over the past three weeks. “We hope this will be sustained,” said Monroe Milstein, chairman and chief executive officer. “But from a few weeks, it’s not enough to go crazy. Also, Easter is a week earlier this year; that’s probably having an effect, too.”
“We need to wait 10 days or so,” said Macy’s West chairman and ceo Michael Steinberg, in reference to seeing if spring will be strong or if February was just a fluke. Steinberg added, “I think we’ll feel better about spring than we did last year,” he said.
Saks Fifth Avenue chalked up big gains during Christmas, but won’t talk about current business since it’s reportedly preparing an IPO for this spring. Federated Department Stores ceo Allen Questrom said his company’s 9 percent February same-store gain “is encouraging for spring.”
However, Herb Douglas, ceo of the Houston-based Weiner’s, isn’t impressed by the February trend. “I look at it as an aberration. When I have six [good months] in a row, then I will take it seriously.”
At Gottschalks, a 34-unit department store based in Fresno, Calif., comp-store sales jumped 5.5 percent for the year through Sunday, although Joe Levy, chairman, attributed part of the gain to weak comparisons to a year ago, when there were heavy rains.
Levy said he expected that growth rate to slow just a bit, although he is bullish on women’s apparel for fall. For the first time since the recession, women’s apparel is beginning to show continued strength, both in career and casualwear, Levy said. Denim also continues strong.
“These are the first little rays of sunshine we’ve had [in women’s apparel],” Levy said. “California’s finally crawling out of the recession.”
Milstein said his company’s 11 stores on the West Coast have outperformed other units, and according to executives of Sears, Roebuck & Co., California is the third-best market for the chain, next to Florida and Texas.
In addition, retailers are banking more heavily on big-name houses, including Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Jones New York, Norton McNaughton, Chanel and Giorgio Armani, among others. They generally like what the designers are showing.
Customers have been responding well to new merchandise this spring, which could be good news for fall, Macy’s Steinberg said. A flurry of new collections from established heavy-hitters such as Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica and Ralph Lauren should boost fall figures. Steinberg has responded enthusiastically to previews of various new labels, indicating that the lines have a fresh approach that might surprise customers. Steinberg pointed out that Nautica’s new women’s line looks like a separate women’s career line — not at all like a feminine version of its men’s collection.
“There’s a lot of new stuff that’s out there,” Steinberg said. “Space becomes a challenge. How do you get all this new stuff in?”
However, Milstein said he’s planning “judiciously” for fall. “We’ve had bad falls the last two years,” he said. “We’re hoping that this rough winter will remain in people’s memory and that they got a lot of wear out of their old garments.” “I feel comfortable that we’ll have a good fall,” said Lana Cain, vice president of women’s apparel, Sears, which posted a 5.1 percent same-store gain last month and was led by career dresses, suits and shoes.
“We’ve done our homework,” she said. “The emphasis on the softer side of Sears, the addition of new square footage for apparel, store remodeling projects and certainly the [Circle of Beauty] cosmetic core that we have put in has brought in new customers.”
Cain said vendors are working hard to freshen assortments, “which seems to be the thing that’s making customers take a look.”
Dayton Hudson Corp. is projecting modest gains in designer apparel for fall, according to Mary Hughes, vice president and general merchandise manager for fine apparel. So far this spring, DH’s department stores have done well with novelty apparel, casual silhouettes, coatdresses, pinstripes and color, Hughes said. She cited Chanel, Donna Karan and Escada among the bestsellers.
For fall, Hughes said she hopes to find a continuation of zippers, shaped clothes and lots of color. Hughes said there’s also a dearth of day-into-evening dresses from designers. “It seems we either have mostly career or true social.”
Hughes also is a strong believer in casual sportswear and feels designers should offer more and leave retro looks behind.
An early spring surge also has been felt at Fred Hayman in Los Angeles, where women’s ready-to-wear jumped more than 10 percent for the year through Saturday. “There seems to be a whole new attitude,” said Hayman. “Saturday was really like one of the best days from the Seventies or Eighties. It was such an upper because we’ve been on such a downer.”
Hayman attributed part of the gain to the new fashion that designers are serving up for spring. He added that his customers finally feel comfortable spending money again. After several years of frugal buying habits, he feels some are now willing to splurge for the right outfit.
At Dallas-based Neiman Marcus, which reported a 16.4 percent same-store sales gain in February, spring business is being led by sheaths, little black dresses, silk sweater sets, relaxed suits and pantsuits, especially those with slim pants, according to a spokeswoman.
Also hot are signature handbags and belts from Prada, Gucci, Chanel and Salvatore Ferragamo.
For fall, the 29-unit chain is betting on leather, brighter colors and apparel trimmed with hardware such as zippers, buckles and ornate closures.
Ultimo, a Chicago store featuring designer merchandise, has racked up an increase of about 10 percent for spring, owner Joan Weinstein said. She forecast similar gains for fall.
The gains came despite spring deliveries, which she characterized as “not great.”
“We’re selling what walks in the door. Our first shipment of John Galliano is all gone. Richard Tyler, Isaac Mizrahi, Isabel Toledo, Yoji Yamamoto, Zoran, Jean Paul Gaultier — they’re all selling great.”
Still, Weinstein said she’s hoping for more imaginative and extraordinary goods for fall.
“It’s time for designers to do something more imaginative,” she said. “I always love simple; it’s the basis of our store. But simple has been copied by everyone. I hope to find new designs. People don’t want to spend unless it’s unusual or extraordinary.”
Douglas at Weiner’s attributed gains for the past two months to clearance sales and markdowns.
Douglas said he’s budgeting for a sales increase through the rest of the year, but said he still believes it’s “too soon to tell” whether the apparel business has turned around.
Knit tops and shorts were among the bestsellers at Weiner’s, which filed Chapter 11 last year.
In the Southeast, retailers report strong full-price business for spring, based on an infusion of newness. They also predict good fall selling seasons, based on strong fall collections.
Sheila Kamensky, vice president, fashion merchandising for Rich’s, described spring business as “just terrific.” “We’re seeing that the customer will buy if we give her something new, but she won’t buy rehashed merchandise,” she said.
Color has helped revive spring sales, along with novelty fabrics and textures, such as pique and waffle stitching. New silhouettes in jackets have also sold well, as well as flowing silk skirts and slim pants.
Kamensky said that she was excited about fall business, based on the strength of the collections seen in New York. “Manufacturers have really stepped up to the plate this time,” she said. She praised novelty outerwear, novelty knitwear, and details such as zippers, as well as lean pants silhouettes and good color.
Kamensky cited bridge resources such as Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy, DKNY, Emanuel and Anne Klein II as particularly strong, as well as Jones Sport, Karen Kane and Evan-Picone in better areas. She added that the entire Liz Claiborne group looked good.
Rich’s will also pick up several new resources, including Lauren, Polo Jeans and Nautica for Women.
Spring business for the past five weeks has increased for Jackson, Miss.-based McRae’s, according to Gary Howard, president. Howard said that the upturn had been generated by new product, rather than clearance merchandise.
Better sportswear, special sizes, areas of moderate sportswear and junior business have been strong categories at McRae’s this spring, while the dress business has been soft, said Howard.
Liz Sport, LizWear, Liz & Co. and Rafaella have had good sell-throughs. Junior business, which was soft in 1995, has picked up, with career separates and ribbed tops as strong items, and CK Calvin Klein is a best-selling resource.
Howard said that it is too early to predict fall business, but the season has a few strikes against it, with fewer selling days in December than this year. “If manufacturers have innovative product with nuances that will make customers buy, then business will improve, but if we continue to run business on price, then it won’t get better,” said Howard. At Isaacson’s in Atlanta, spring business has picked up after a flat Christmas season, said Gemma Taylor, vice president. She said that new color, texture and silhouettes, such as hipster pants and A-line skirts, have spurred shopping.
“People are checking prices, but they are buying,” she said.
Designer business has outpaced bridge with best-selling resources such as Escada and Valentino. Resources such as Bazar from Christian Lacroix and Philosophy have performed well with young people.
“We feel good about fall business,” said Taylor. “We think the Olympics and the strong local economy will boost sales. Taylor said that Isaacson’s would beef up advertising in local tourist publications during the summer.
At J.C. Penney Co., shine is expected to stay in the spotlight for fall, said Ed Redding, merchandise manager for private-label career sportswear.
“Jacquard and textured fabrics with shine, as well as novelty textures, are looking new and good,” he explained.
Tunics, novelty silks, fine-gauge sweaters, wool flannel and a fall palette that includes soft brights also will be important, forecast Redding, adding that sales in his division are expected to be ahead by mid-single digits, or at least 5 percent.
Bestsellers for spring include printed rayon crepe silhouettes, as well as rayon and linen styles.
“For spring, we expanded our color range to include lots of tonal colors,” he explained. “Rather than offering one color in the red family or melon family, we offered two or three tonal variations.”

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