ANALYSTS SAY MAY WILL TELL WHETHER REBOUND IS REAL

Byline: Valerie Seckler

NEW YORK — Wait until May.
That’s the advice industry analysts and consultants are giving retailers now. They say that with February, March and April sales data under their belts, they will be better able to determine whether retailing has turned around.
February sales advanced 4.25 percent at leading discounters, specialty stores and department stores, and there’s a chance the momentum can be sustained, analysts said Monday.
“It’s too early to know if the apparel business is really coming back, but our sense is that this year will be better,” said Richard Baum, vice president of investment research at Goldman Sachs.
Baum is looking for women’s apparel sales to rise between 3 and 5 percent in 1996, to between $74 billion and $75.4 billion. NPD Research cited a razor-thin 0.1 percent gain last year to $71.8 billion.
“We probably won’t know how good business is until the end of April,” said Todd Slater, analyst at UBS Securities. “The early Easter will help March sales, especially against last year’s weak results. However, Philip Abbenhaus, analyst at Stifel, Nicolaus, said, “I don’t think the consumer has changed much from January or last fall.” He said high consumer installment debt and sluggish growth in real disposable income could dampen sales this year. Store closings should benefit surviving merchants. According to Slater’s data, about 1,500 apparel specialty stores were closed or were scheduled to be by the end of 1995. Another 1,858 are due to go dark this year. These closings mark a 14 percent reduction in just two years from the 24,217 apparel specialty stores in operation in 1994.
“Very few designers are having an impact now, and the stores aren’t carrying much bridge fashion because they’re facing a customer who’s reluctant to spend,” said Walter Loeb, president of Loeb Associates Inc. “We’ve been in a classic fashion cycle, but I believe a change is coming, with more interest in fashion and color.”
Arnold Aronson, partner in Levy, Kerson, Aronson & Associates, observed, “Retailers converted to spring from winter more cleanly this year. I think the stores are looking a bit better, which enhances the selling environment. I’d say a cautious optimism is well placed.”

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