NEW YORK — Is there a career for mass market stores in career wear?
Yes, for those who want it and are willing to devote dollars and floor space to developing a growing category.
For some mass market stores, such as Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Kmart, career sportswear is worth the trouble. The two chains are increasing their emphasis on moderately priced jackets, blouses, skirts and pants, and items such as vests. They are also merchandising the clothes with mannequins and signage and spending heavily on advertising the category.
Kmart has created its own brand under the Jaclyn Smith label as well as carrying other brands. Sears is taking a different approach, having dropped private label in favor of brands.
Dorrit Bern, Sears’ group vice president for apparel and home fashions, said: “Four years ago, when I came here, the majority of products were casual commodities — sweaters, T-shirts, casual pants. We weren’t in career because that talks about assortment, taste level, a lot of things that the company didn’t want to get into.
“We saw an enormous void in providing tasteful moderate merchandise to the market, because a lot of the moderate department stores were trading up and going to higher price points,” she added.
Sears also had to differentiate itself from “the Marts,” she said, referring to such chains as Kmart and Wal-Mart.
Bern said that Sears’ greatest advantage is that it offers soft and hard goods under one roof.
“We have a store where [a woman] can buy her kids’ clothes, her husband’s clothes, her casual and career clothes, walk over and order that new screen door, and be out in under two hours.”
Bern noted that once the store decided to go for more career in its sportswear mix, it decided to drop private label and be completely branded.
“We decided to go with the people that can give us excitement in prints, that can understand silhouettes and our direction.”
For fall, Bern said soft dressing in rayon fabrics continues to be an important trend in her market.
“Is it because dress codes are relaxing? That’s probably part of it,” she said. “Is is just comfort? It doesn’t cost a lot of money, but a camp shirt with coordinating pants and a jacket looks and feels great.”
While a few trends have had staying power, Bern said Sears is making a major effort to keep merchandise flowing through the stores.
“We are on a very strict markdown schedule,” she said. “We want a much more even flow of merchandise, because we really believe that newness is what drives the customer to buy.”
Other mass market stores, such as Bradlee’s, include career dressing in the apparel mix, but put more emphasis on casual, and Caldor puts no emphasis on it at all.
Celia Clancy, vice president and general merchandise manager for women’s apparel at Bradlee’s, said that while career is an important category for the stores, there is more emphasis on casual — although she added that in some of the larger stores in metropolitan areas, Bradlee’s plans to expand the career area.
“We run a separate dress department, and we do have the career separates such as jackets, skirts, pants, nice sweaters,” she said. “We tend to emphasize versatile career that can be worn in a variety of situations. The emphasis on versatility has increased noticeably, partly because of casual days at offices and because our sales numbers reflect that those clothes sell well.”
Clancy added that her stores are not quite as susceptible to fashion fluctuations such as hemlines or jacket fits, but that the trends do affect her.
“If the jacket business isn’t good [at department stores], my jacket business isn’t good,” she said. “Soft dressing has been a mainstay: the two-piece dressing, the crinkle rayon.”
Caldor, however, relies solely on casual apparel, with no immediate plans to go after the career customer.
“We are a casual apparel retailer. That’s what we hang our hat on,” said Gary Vasquez, senior vice president of marketing at Caldor. “We don’t perceive ourselves as being in the career business, nor do we perceive ourselves as going after the career business.”
Tom Burns, vice president and general merchandise manager at The Doneger Group, a large New York buying office that services several of the mass merchandisers, explained that career isn’t an area that all mass market stores might want to enter.
“It’s largely a question of prices and assortment,” he said. “When you make the decision to get into that area, you really have to make a big statement to your customers. When you start to get involved in career sportswear, you have to broaden your assortment — you have to carry skirts, jackets, pants, blouses. The trend for mass retailers has been to try to be a category dominator in basics such as jeans, T-shirts, etc. Also, inevitably when you get into career, you start pushing into higher price points.”
A recent visit to four New Jersey stores revealed strong career statements at Sears and Kmart, a smattering of career looks at Bradlee’s and little at Caldor.

A Sears on Route 1 in North Brunswick was comfortable and clean, with the apparel department decorated with gray carpeting, mannequins sporting current career looks, posters, and even a bank of TVs playing rock videos. On one side of the center aisle was more conservative career dressing, while the other side was skewed toward the hipper, contemporary career customer.
The apparel selection was by far the largest and most fashionable of any in the four stores visited, and prices reflected that — they were as much as 50 percent more that at the other stores for comparable items.
The conservative section was clearly marked “Career Dressing,” and contained a variety of wall displays, rounders and four-ways. Resources here included Michele Leslie; a red and purple print rayon group included a $22 camp shirt marked 25 percent off, with coordinating walking shorts.
There was a wall display of Michele Leslie, including a $30 blue and green print crinkle rayon jacket with coordinating walk shorts, $26. On the same display were looks from Paquette by Byer, such as a shirt with attached vest in coffee with ribbon detail on the body; in that same group was a loose coffee-colored jacket with ribbon trim and a leather thong closure, $44, a coordinating long skirt for $32 and walk shorts for $28.
Another four-way showed Brittany Nicole separates such as olive and white printed boxy jackets with turned-back cuffs, for $40, shown with coordinating white short-sleeved blouses with attached vests, for $36, and solid olive pants with a pleated trouser front and elastic back for $32, or as a walk short for $24, all in acetate and rayon.
A few groups by Baronesa were on a four-way marked “Just reduced career dressing,” and featured a cotton and rayon gauze russet one-button jacket, $56, with a jungle print coordinating long tunic vest for $42, a half-lined beige gauze elastic-back skirt, $48 and loose pants in the jungle print with a side self tie, $46. There were also jackets and pants in a darker brown gauze.
Across the aisle in front of the contemporary department was a display of men’s wear looks from Sitting Pretty, including a rayon cream blouse with foulard print contrast collar and black buttons, $28, and a foulard print skirt, $18, and a men’s wear suspender skirt that was shown with a cream blouse with attached pinstripe vest and tie, $34.

Kmart, on Route 18 in East Brunswick, also offered a healthy selection of career looks. A spokeswoman for the store noted, however, that summer is a slow time for the store’s career apparel.
“Right now, we’re concentrating on back-to-school and juniors,” she said. “You won’t start to see the full range of career looks until mid or end of August.”
Although the store was under construction, it was very clean and brightly lit. A Kmart employee at the front door guided shoppers to their destinations. Displays were neat and clearly marked, with brand names displayed above wall units. Key vendors included Gitano, Jaclyn Smith and Riders by Lee.
There were a few rounders of career-oriented jackets, including looks from the Jaclyn Smith line and Kate Allen, a division of Next Day Apparel, that is 51 percent owned by The Leslie Fay Cos. There was a four-way of looks from Bentley, including a short-sleeved acetate and rayon floral print blouse, $18, or in a sleeveless style for $15.99, in a variety of colors. These were hung with a knee-length button-front skirt, $14.99, in teal or black. Another rounder of coordinated sportswear looks from Jessica Scott included sage, wine and khaki crinkle polyester and rayon skirts, $15.99 and pants, $18.99, with several printed coordinating jacket styles, all featuring novelty buttons, for $25.99. Clothes on this rounder were marked 25 percent off.

Although career is outnumbered by casual looks at Bradlees, it is not forgotten. The Bradlees on Route 1 in East Brunswick featured what appears to be the current hot items — boxy jackets with turned-back sleeves and the ubiquitous vest-and-shirt combination. There were a few career displays of what looked like recent deliveries in a department marked “Sportswear.” They were neatly hung in coordinated groups, making it easier for the career customer to assemble a look.
These included Bonjour coordinated sportswear groups such as a navy and white striped acetate and rayon short-sleeved tops marked down to $12 from $16.99, a navy blue one-button jacket marked down to $22 from $29.99, shown with a mid-calf elastic waist navy skirt with self belt, marked down to $15, or a knee-length white and blue skirt marked down to $15 from $19.99.
The same basic group was shown in coral, dark green and cream, and burgundy and cream groups. This four-way was marked 25 percent off.
The boxy jackets, from Chad Stevens, came in a variety of houndstooth and check plaid weaves, in gray and white with a rolled-back sleeve. The jackets were marked $29.99, and were shown with a black polyester and rayon straight knee-length skirt marked $19.99.
Also in the sportswear section were separates from a resource called Caliche Gold, in a blue and gold batik print on rayon; a split skirt was $19.99, with a coordinating top at $16.99. Printed rayon and acetate jackets from Related Accents were $32.99 and were shown with white short-sleeved tops with piping at $14.99, navy elastic-back pants at $24.99, or a long button front skirt at $26.99.

Caldor in North Brunswick was more casual still, with plenty of printed leggings, knit tops and jeans. However, there were a few items that could be worn to the office, such as lightweight printed rayon dresses. The store also carried some jackets and coordinated bottoms from Daniel Caron on a rack marked “$15 to $20.”

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