Byline: Dianne M. Pogoda

NEW YORK — Suits, once the domain of better department and specialty stores, are now booming in lower-price markets.
Although they are still an elusive category for discounters, suits have caught on big-time at retailers like J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck. Each of those companies is adding heavily to its suit assortments, in career and dressy styles.
At Sears, for example, suits have been expanded to 500 stores from 100 in just one year, said Janis Holcomb, divisional merchandise manager.
“The business has been phenomenal,” she said. “We have always been highly developed in the multipiece dress business. We started testing suits about a year ago and the consumer has responded very well. This business is in its infancy with us.”
Suits at Sears are mostly private label, Holcomb said, carrying the Executive Collection brand.
“We have an excellent product development department,” she said. “We’ve looked at Kasper suits and pretty much knocked them off.”
The suits are fully lined, and 95 percent are imported. Most of the business is done at $69 to $89 retail, although some suits are offered as high as $129. These are generally domestic and are used to test styles, Holcomb said.
Silhouettes are mostly structured, with longer jackets; one-button, and slightly shaped, although double-breasted styles are acceptable if they are roomy, because the Sears customer often takes a larger size.
Fabrics are mainly polyester and rayon blends, in novelties like plaids, or embellished with soutache, pearls, and burnout or cutout embroideries.
“These can go from work to an office party or to dinner, and that represents value to our customers,” Holcomb said. “When we offer solids, we give a lot of value-added details, like detachable collars and cuffs.”
She said about 10 percent of the suit business is in solids, 60 percent is in embellished and the balance is in other novelties.
Heading into spring, Holcomb said, the jacket-dress ensemble is very important. Sears will offer both pieces fully lined, she said, adding, “That’s something that’s so visible in the designer market, and I’m sure it will reach us.”
The color pink is also hot, and Sears will include linens and crepes for spring as well. J.C. Penney, which recently placed first overall in a WWD consumer opinion poll of the best stores in America and earned top honors in career clothing and suits/dresses categories, has had solid growth in suits over the past year and expects double-digit growth in 1995, according to Nancy Reim, women’s suit buyer.
She attributed the growth to the push for more feminine suits, including soft silhouettes, decorative button treatments and trimmings, and feminine necklines, like sweetheart, shawl collars and U-shapes.
“The customer responds to new looks,” she said, “such as new shapes in skirts and interesting fabrics, like new crepes and tricotines.”
She said Penney’s carries slim skirts, as well as tulip and pleated styles, and lengths were generally 23 to 25 inches — at or below the knee.
There has been an acceptance of new neutrals, including greens, and taupes accented with black, Reim said, but traditional rich fall colors and brights for spring were also popular.
Penney’s retail price range for suits is about $100 to $250. In the better market, the entry price point is about $250.
Mary Ann Casale, divisional merchandise manager of dresses, suits and children’s wear at Certified Fashion Group, a buying office, said the overall suit business was getting stronger.
“Everyone has become so casual now that a suit really stands out,” she said.
Casale said key looks for spring were less-constructed silhouettes; linens in bright colors, like fuchsia, jade, coral and blue; lots of solids, with a smattering of men’s wear fabrics; crepes in softer colors, and framed looks with contrasting piping. “A great way to highlight the suit department is to show a suit with detachable white collar and cuffs,” she said. Despite the growing popularity of suits, spirited projections for spring and what would seem to be value appeal to consumers, the career orientation and price of suits have kept discounters from embracing the category.
“Discounters find it difficult to fit a suit into their price mix,” said Casale. “Even if they sell a suit for $69.99, that’s still much higher than their dresses selling for $29.99.”
She added that since Sears and Penney’s have polished their fashion images and are going after the working woman, their customer is willing to pay a higher price for a suit.
Many mass merchants, long a home to jeans and other casual sportswear, have upgraded their apparel assortments and added dresses to their mix. But for those retailers whose assortments are mainly casual separates, only the sportiest dresses are acceptable, and suits are out of the question.
“We’ve taken a stance on dresses, but they’re very sportswear-oriented,” said Marjorie Barnes, vice president of fashion and product development for Caldor Corp. “Our dresses are casual, even though some people do wear them to work, but we feel suits are a little more career-oriented than what our customers want from us.”
Kathy Hurley, vice president and general merchandise manager of soft lines for Rose’s Stores, Henderson, N.C., echoed those thoughts.
“We don’t carry any suits and just a few dresses,” Hurley said. “Our apparel is mainly casual sportswear, heavily denim-based. The dresses we carry are usually casual slipdresses or rompers.
“Our customer is not very much of a career customer,” she continued. “She’s mostly rural, and generally in a lower income bracket than even a Wal-Mart customer. Career apparel is not for her.”
Manufacturers say it is difficult to make a suit at a price the discount customer will tolerate. It’s also tough to get her to think of a discounter as a store for a career item like a suit.
Gregg Marks, president of the Sassco unit of The Leslie Fay Cos., said suit business at the mass level was “very underdeveloped.”
Through its Le Suit division, Sassco does make private label suits for such chains as Penney’s, Sears and Ward’s.
“We’re talking to other discounters to convince them that their customers may pay a higher price if they’re made to understand the value a suit represents,” Marks said.
Harvey Zaken, a partner in Chad Stevens, a moderate-price suit maker, said since Sears, Penney’s and Ward’s have upgraded their apparel assortments, they have focused more attention on their suit businesses.
“Sears has always had some dresses and other dressier apparel,” Zaken said. “Now it has expanded its suit department, and does very well with it. Penney’s has one of the best-developed moderate-price suit businesses in the country. And Ward’s, which also has had dresses, is now starting to develop its suit business.”
Those retailers, he added, have been able to prosper with suits because their customer is more inclined to accept the store as a source for that type of dressing, and because her budget is generally a little bigger than the typical discount shopper’s.
“Lower-end stores are more likely to do a two-piece dress than a lined suit, because it’s less expensive,” Zaken added.
Richard Cavallero, president of suit maker Morgan Miller, said the moderate suit business was seeing the return of customers who had drifted to dresses.
Morgan Miller makes suits for its own label and for store brands, all designed to retail for less than $100.
Cavallero said there was no style experimentation in this market. “We give them last year’s proven performers from the better market,” he said. “These suits retail for $79, $89 and $99 and are the equivalent of suits that sold for $159. They are all fully lined, too.”
Cavallero also said discounters have not entered the traditional suit market, despite the value a suit offers. If they get involved in two-piece apparel, it is most often a two-piece dress that typically uses dress fabrics, not traditional suiting fabrics.
One manufacturer, who asked not to be identified, said, “Most discounters have been very anti-suit, because they don’t look at themselves as career stores, and suits are still perceived as career apparel. “
The maker said cost was another important issue, because it was “just about impossible” to make a fully lined suit that could retail for around $50, which would probably be the price limit for suits at the discount level.
Even jackets with walking shorts, a casual suit look that was popular several years ago, were not successful in the suit business.
“The customer who wants a walking short will buy it in the sportswear department and pair it with a blazer. She doesn’t buy the suit,” the source said.
But just because suits aren’t selling at discounters now doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. Consultant Kurt Barnard said it was entirely possible to sell suits at discount stores.
“It would require a lot of testing to see what type of suit would sell, but it can be done,” he said. “It all depends on the cost. We can’t forget that the discount customer is looking for good prices.”
Barnard added, however, “We are in a casual era, and while suits might be a good niche for some retailers, I’m not sure the total volume that could be done in suits at the discount level would be attractive to the mass stores.”

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