Byline: Arthur Friedman — with contributions from Dianne M. Pogoda

NEW YORK — Overall business might be difficult, but coat departments have brought retailers some Christmas cheer.
Following last year’s dismal performance and a slow third quarter, outerwear sales hit their stride in November and stores contacted last week said they were hoping to finish the season on the plus side. Business is still sluggish in spots, but merchants feel the cold spells the last six weeks have put consumers in the mood to buy a new coat.
Some trends have emerged as leaders, and stores are getting strong performances from several areas. Here are merchants’ evaluations of the categories:
* Active outerwear tops the list in polyester microfiber and nylon parkas, anoraks and systems jackets, often trimmed with real or fake fur.
* The pile family of fake furs and fleece, in patterns and animal prints, have enjoyed a good holiday season.
* Real shearlings and fake shearlings, which are really pig suede, have sold well to the rugged crowd.
* Short leather jackets, from biker looks to dressy cropped styles, have seen a resurgence.
* Wools have been sporadic — basic long coats have been slow, short and three-quarter-length swings and pantcoats have been better and high-end cashmere, camel’s hair and alpaca have seen limited success.
* Rainwear seems lost in the storm.
“It’s been a roller coaster, but the highs have been bigger than the lows,” said Linda Maynard, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for Jacobson Stores. “We had very nice increases in November, and it’s still in the double digits in December.”
Maynard said active outerwear in all lengths has been the star of the season, and short wools have sold well. Dressy camel’s hair coats have been strong, and fake fur and fleece have been solid performers.
“We have a Polarfleece jacket that sold early and continues to sell really well in our Christmas catalog,” Maynard said. “People see that it’s going to be a cold winter, and we’re hoping for a nice, long outerwear season.”
At Canadian retailer Holt Renfrew, business got off to a slow start, but “picked up amazingly since November,” said Barbara Atkin, fashion director.
“Last year we sold a lot of basics, but this year it’s been novelty looks that are selling,” Atkin said. “Microfiber anoraks and parkas have been very important, as have nylon and microfiber utilitarian, high-performance coats.”
Other bestsellers have been shearlings, leathers and fake fur animal prints, Atkin said. Business at the 12-store chain has been especially brisk in Montreal and Vancouver.
Monroe Milstein, president of Burlington Coat Factory, said after a slow start, business picked up in the three weeks prior to Thanksgiving. Since then, however, the pace has slowed again.
He noted that the big storm that brought heavy snows to the Midwest and places like Buffalo kept consumers away from the stores. However, the sub-freezing temperatures that followed were welcome and stirred some action at stores last week.
“If we can get the cold weather without the snow or ice, it should help business,” Milstein said. “Hopefully, we’ll see a pre-Christmas surge, because December is the key month for outerwear.”
Milstein said down coats and jackets have been bestsellers, adding that wools and fake furs have also sold well.
“Now that the weather has turned cold, the season is going great,” said Carolyn Moss, fashion director for Macy’s East. “We hope the cold weather continues, so we can carry the business through to February.”
While consumer buying patterns have moved purchasing closer to need, Moss said women are also treating coats more as ensemble pieces. This leads to multiple outerwear purchases and spreads dollars over more categories.
The best category for Macy’s has been active outerwear, Moss said, particularly moss microfiber with fur-trim hoods. The look has sold well in a variety of colors and lengths, Moss said, citing Gallery as a key resource.
Another important area has been short, form-fitting leather jackets with zipper closures and trim, Moss said, with Andrew Marc a top label. Moss said leathers and active outerwear do well as holiday gift items.
Wool coats have been steady, with action coming in knee-length better quality wools and cashmere and wool blends in swing bodies. Fake shearlings are also getting the nod from consumers as a rugged-style, well-priced novelty item.
Outerwear business at Sears has been “challenging,” said a spokeswoman, “but we’ve been able to present our customer with some categories she’s embraced.”
She cited velvet, silk, sparkle and microfibers as “excellent” performers, and said “leather has been outstanding.”
Lee Mandlebaum, vice president of Certified Worldwide Retail Consultants, said the past eight weeks have seen a tremendous demand for immediate deliveries on off-price outerwear in an overall highly promotional season.
“Down, bubble coats and leathers have done very well,” he said. “Long wools were nothing to speak of, with only some limited success with trimmed coats. The customer doesn’t need to buy another basic, and I think with the long wools, that’s mainly what you get.”
He said fake fur trims were big sellers, adding that fake shearling that reverses to leopard was especially hot.

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