Byline: Jennifer L. Brady

NEW YORK — Although women’s apparel sales at some department stores perked up in February, most major chains reported flat results or declines, dashing hopes for a rebound in fashion retailing anytime soon.
Consumers are expected to further put off purchasing due to this year’s later Easter, postponing sales on spring goods from March into April. Easter falls on April 16. Last year, it fell on April 3. “There’s concern that there’s not a positive enough signal from women’s apparel,” said Isaac Lagnado, publisher of Tactical Retail Monitor. “While shapely and more colorful items are selling at higher-end businesses, we don’t see that filtering into the mainstream, particularly not at specialty stores where we expect more market share erosion.” The Gap’s same-store sales dipped 1 percent, and Talbots same-store sales grew just 3.8 percent, well below its pattern of the past year. However, Arnold Zetcher, president and chief executive officer, said, “The increase was in line with our internal plan and compares to an exceptionally strong 18.8 percent increase of February of last year.”
Zetcher added that the company anticipates March same-store sales, up against a 25.8 percent increase in the 1994 period, will be hurt by the timing of Easter.
Other specialty chains posting declines in same-store sales: Charming Shoppes tumbled 22 percent, and Eddie Bauer dropped 7 percent. John J. Shea, ceo of Bauer’s parent, Spiegel Inc., noted that winter apparel was liquidated at higher markdowns, contributing to lower sales.
Neiman Marcus Group same-store sales dipped 1.2 percent, while total sales drooped 4.1 percent to $129 million. A spokesman said that Bergdorf Goodman had the strongest sales, with a double-digit increase. Neiman Marcus same-store sales were flat and reflected a shift in the promotional calendar. A major sales event was held in January instead of February. He added that Contempo Casuals same-store sales were “negative.” On the brighter side, Wal-Mart, not surprisingly, outpaced discounters with an 8.4 percent gain in same-store sales. Total sales were $6 billion in February, up 15 percent. And Ann Taylor Stores Corp. racked up an 8 percent rise in same-store sales, while total sales surged 22.6 percent to $45.9 million. Fortunately for retailers, February is not a heavy volume month. It’s a period of transition from winter into spring goods, though many retailers regard it as a barometer for spring. Some observers noted that retail sales should have been better in February, since there was much less snow than a year ago. Nevertheless, there was a positive women’s wear trend seen at several department stores. Sears Merchandising said women’s wear sparked a same-store sales gain of 5.4 percent. Total sales were up 7.5 percent to $1.8 billion. Growth was also seen in fine jewelry and cosmetics, one of the more underdeveloped areas at Sears. Federated Department Stores also cited strength in women’s and said same-store sales rose 3.1 percent, climbing to $912 million and exceeding expectations. A Federated spokeswoman noted strength in bridge, better and moderate sportswear, as well as petites, dresses, suits and coats. She added that all areas of fashion accessories and shoes performed well.
J.C. Penney Co. reported good performances in dresses, casual misses’ sportswear, particularly tops, and cosmetics, but overall, there was just a 1.4 percent gain in same-store sales. Total sales grew 1.6 percent to $847 million.
Comparable-store sales were flat at Dillard Department Stores, but up 2.7 percent at the department stores division of May Co.
Limited Inc. said that overall sales were on “the upper end of expectations” and margins were up to last year. Same-store sales edged up 2 percent, and total sales rose 10 percent to $465.5 million from $422.2 million.
The company said Express had a “very strong month,” as same-store sales rose 10 percent, ahead of plan, and merchandise margins were up to last year’s. Henri Bendel’s same-store sales climbed 13 percent, with sales slightly ahead of plan.
Limited Stores’ same-store sales dropped 8 percent. Lerner New York’s same-store sales were up 4 percent, while Lane Bryant declined 9 percent, after a less promotional February than a year ago. Strengthened by Valentine’s Day business, Victoria’s Secret Stores’ same-store sales rose 5 percent and catalog sales soared 29 percent. Bath & Body Works’ same-store sales jumped 32 percent, and Limited Too sales were up 4 percent.
Dayton Hudson Corp.’s same-store sales moved ahead 1.8 percent, and total sales grew 7.4 percent to $1.3 billion. Robert Ulrich, chairman and ceo, said, “While sales were slightly below plan at Target and Mervyn’s, inventories are in good shape.” He added that “Sales were on plan at the department stores.”
Dayton’s Mervyn’s division same-store sales slid 2 percent, while total sales inched up 0.4 percent. A spokesman cited women’s career merchandise as a leading category. Target’s same-store sales were up 3.2 percent, and total sales advanced 11 percent. The department store division total and same-store sales rose 1.2 percent.
Carson Pirie Scott & Co. same-store sales rose 19.9 percent and were boosted by clearances at eight stores being sold to Dayton’s. Comparable sales for the rest of the company declined 3.9 percent, reflecting less clearance merchandise, a shift in the sales calendar and renovations. Total Carson sales increased 21.5 percent to $82.7 million.
Among the other big losers was Broadway Stores Inc. posted a 6.8 percent drop in same-store sales. David L. Dworkin, president and ceo, said, “Our sales for the month are being compared against the very strong sales we reported in February 1994, following the Northridge earthquake,” which occurred in January 1994.