Byline: Arthur Friedman and Rosemarie Feitelberg, New York, and Rusty Williamson, Dallas

NEW YORK — For most outerwear departments in major stores across the country, this has been a winter of discontent.
Plagued by sluggish apparel buying early in the season and warmer-than-usual weather in December and January in the Northeast and Midwest — key areas for coat business — retailers generally ended the campaign behind or flat with last year.
As business slowed, price slashing abounded, slicing into margins for stores and manufacturers, who, as usual, were asked to help retailers with markdown money or give-back allowances.
Amid all the troubles, there were pockets of strength. Rugged shearlings and active wools performed well, signaling a preference for casual, lifestyle-oriented styles. Short cashmeres and wools also did well, reflecting the warm winter weather.
Some observers point out that this winter’s problems could be next winter’s propellants. If the weather cooperates, they say, the lack of sales this season could mean an increase in 1995. Such was the case in 1993, when a top-notch season was recorded following several tough years.
Many retailers agreed with Monroe Milstein, president and chief executive officer of Burlington Coat Factory, who said: “It was the worst year I can remember in 48 years. I don’t think anyone met plan.”
Without consistent cold weather, most of the chain’s 223 stores saw outerwear sales drop, said Milstein, adding that business was better where the weather was colder. He also said results were hindered by a lack of truly a hot trend.
“Apparel prices are down by about 4 percent. Customers are buying lower-priced items. A customer who used to buy a $300 coat might be buying a $250 coat,” Milstein said. “We have to sell more units to keep even.”
Sending an ominous message to vendors, Milstein said, “Next year we might do it more judiciously by buying less up-front and holding off on re-orders.”
At Jacobson’s Stores, Jackson, Mich., outerwear sales were even with last year’s, said George P. Kelly, senior vice president and general merchandise manager.
“It was a very difficult business,” said Kelly, who blamed the unseasonably warm weather.
Though overall business was flat, shearlings at $1,400 to $1,500 and traditional wool coats at $250 to $300 did see action at the register.
“Right now, our inventories are very lean,” said Kelly. “The slow movers such as leather coats were marked down early.”
He was optimistic about business next fall and winter, though, reasoning that since shoppers held back this season, they will probably be in a buying mood.
A similar view was held by Ralph Romberg, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Neiman Marcus in Dallas.
“Business wasn’t great this year,” said Romberg. “Traditionally, if one season isn’t great, the next will be.”
At Neiman’s, several vendors were responsible for long and short cashmere coats retailing up to $995 that were bestsellers, along with fake fur coats at $399 to $499.
While Hills Department Stores’ “stretch plan,” which was the ultimate increase the chain expected to see this past year, called for a percentage increase of almost double digits, the company finished with a modest single-digit gain, said Larry Angst, a vice president for soft lines.
Herman Kay’s short wool pantcoats at $70, long leather coats at $100 by Comint and Ron Lee, and Herman Kay’s wool capes at $80 were top performers, as were a variety of three-quarter-length microfiber coats with faux fur trim at $60, he said.
“We went after that merchandise more aggressively,” Angst said. “There’s no doubt in my mind our business would have been better — just like everyone else’s — if the weather had been colder. We didn’t come close to maximizing what outerwear could have been.”
After a great year for outerwear in 1993, 1994 did not measure up, said Carolyn Moss, fashion director for ready-to-wear at the Macy’s East division of Federated Department Stores.
“Everyone was excited about outerwear after last year, but it didn’t happen,” she said. “Long wool coats were soft compared to last year.”
Active outerwear and faux shearling coats generated some business, Moss said. Beginning as early as July and continuing throughout the season, polyester-filled and down-filled active looks sold well at $128 to $199. Top labels included short or three-quarter-length styles from J.G. Hook, Gallery and Forecaster, Moss said.
Faux shearling coats by Gallery, Marvin Richards and Synergy at $179 to $299 were also good performers, she said.
While many stores were disappointed with their outerwear season, others were not.
Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president for fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor here, said, “Our total coat business was surprisingly good, even though the expected cold weather never came.”
The strength of the season came in active outerwear, notably sueded microfiber jackets with fur-trim hoods and colorful down-filled anoraks and parkas. In addition, short wools also sold well, something Olexa said is “attributed directly to the mild weather.”
Important labels at L&T included JNY, a new casual, sporty line by Jones New York Outerwear, Steve by Searle and Anne Klein II.
“We had a cashmere coat from Regency at $500 that was outstanding,” Olexa said, noting that the high price point did not deter consumers.
At Nordstrom in Seattle, the fourth quarter was highly successful, said B.J. Hovsepian, Gallery coat buyer for the company’s eight Washington stores.
“The most exciting areas were styles with novelty either in whole or in part,” Hovsepian said. “Whether it was faux furs from Tiber, or wool or cashmere with fur trim, if it had a special detail or a certain look, it sold well. Leathers were extremely important to us, in the classic bomber or in novelty swing styles.”
In Washington, January weather “turned the corner rapidly into spring,” curtailing business in cold-weather gear, but not hurting overall business.
“We have been quick to offer spring merchandise such as cotton jackets or microfiber in active jackets and classic trenches, and we continue to do very well with Sanyo’s packable rain slicker,” Hovsepian said.