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SHORTS GET OFF TO A STRONG START

Byline: Scott Malone / With contributions from Julee Greenberg

NEW YORK — The shorts sellers are on a roll, while capris continue to show surprising staying power.
After two years in which shorts barely sold, retail and vendor executives report that as warm weather rolls into the southern parts of the U.S., the category is performing better than it was expected to this year.
After the abysmal performance of basic denim shorts last year, designers are offering a lot more fashion variety, incorporating into the shorts category the same types of fabrics, treatments and washes that have driven the jeans business for the past two years. Others suggested that the simple pendulum of the fashion cycle is causing consumers who ignored shorts for the past few years to buy them again.
Still, a few executives pointed out that it’s important not to read too much into shorts sales during the first few weeks of the season. Some vendors noted that after two bad years, many retailers drastically cut back their shorts buying, which makes it much easier for the category to outsell expectations. Further, retailers whose operations are concentrated in the South said they’re pleased to see the category get off to a solid start this year, but they’re not betting too heavily on the business.
At Bloomingdale’s in New York, Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction, said shorts are outperforming expectations at the chains’ southern and California outposts. He added that he expects they will start selling well at the chain’s northern locations when the weather gets warmer.
“Shorts haven’t been important for a long time,” he said. “But girls always like to show their legs, and we think by summer, New York will sell shorts, too.”
Bill Kuder, senior buyer of casual bottoms at Plano, Tex.-based J.C. Penney Co., also reported strong shorts sales.
“Our St. John’s Bay front-and-back panel D-ring model is doing very well,” Kuder said. “We’re seeing much higher volume in this category over last year. Belted shorts are trending up strongly over last year. We’re seeing high sell-throughs on denim utility and carpenter shorts, as well.”
Junior shorts, which the company started selling later this year, are also doing well, according to buyer Jan Hodges.
“Knit and active novelty shorts are strong sellers, so far,” Hodges said.
At Beall’s Department Stores, a 67-store chain based in Bradenton, Fla., divisional vice president Don Niemann said: “Our shorts business is always more important than it is to the rest of the country. And yes, the warm weather we’ve gotten has put our sales up double digits all of a sudden.”
He said he believed the weather was the main reason for the category’s strong performance.
“Last year, February was warm and March was cold,” Niemann said. “This year, February was cold and March was warm. As good merchants as we are, the weather is important to this.”
Many of the fashion trends that have been driving the jeans business are also working in denim shorts, he added.
“In jeans, the more treatments the better is the best way I can put it,” he said. “The same looks translate to shorts.”
Washed-down and whiskered denim shorts are performing well, he noted, as are athletic styles. Despite the strong early showing, Niemann expects full-length jeans to outperform them this spring.
“For the jeans business, we have an aggressive plan, even in the spring and summer here in Florida,” he said, explaining that Beall’s is expecting double-digit sales growth in jeans. “For shorts, it is the same thing, although I have a plan for jeans growth to pace shorts.”
Over the full season, Niemann said to expect growth in shorts sales to come in below the 10 percent mark.
At Macy’s East in New York, Christine Munnelly, divisional merchandise manager for juniors, said the shorts business has picked up this year. She attributed that to an increased emphasis on novelty looks.
“Shorts are no longer basic,” she said. “Brands have taken what is best about a pair of jeans and made it short.”
Still, she suggested that conservative plans are at least partly responsible for the performance exceeding expectations. “Overall, we have much better sell-throughs since we own less,” she added.
Across much of the northern part of the country, the shorts season hasn’t even begun.
At Chicago-based Lark Stores, a 10-unit chain, president Len Rothschild said of shorts: “We don’t even bring them in till April. It’s rough in Chicago. On March 1, we had a snowstorm.”
Some retailers in warm-weather states contended that shorts haven’t been performing well.
“Shorts have not been great. In California, it’s very much a capri business,” said Scott Manson, vice president and general merchandise manager at Fresno, Calif.-based Gottschalks, an 86-store chain. “Gloria Vanderbilt capris in denim and capris from Lee, in both prints and solids, are powerful right now. We’re seeing a longer length from last year, with 19-inchers moving down.”
The Penney’s buyers also reported strong sales of capri and cropped pants.
“Crops are the key length in juniors,” said Hodges. “They’re longer than capris and more fashionable for the junior customer.”
Kruder added that in misses’, “capris are the hot spot. After a slow start, they are now selling extremely well. In particular, the stretch sateens are the biggest sellers, in both solids and prints.”
Meanwhile, vendors said they were pleased to see any sign of short sales picking up, after two dry years.
“They have taken off well out of the gate,” said Todd Howard, president of junior and children’s sportswear at Tommy Jeans. “They have been tough the last couple of years. With the junior business being so driven by newness, the girl has had capris and those looks, and now her wardrobe is ready for a few more shorts again.”
At Unionbay, a division of Seattle Pacific Industries, vice president of sales Connie Maynard said she hoped merchants and vendors wouldn’t overreact to the strong early shorts sales.
“Last year and the year before, retailers got killed with shorts, so they planned that business way down,” she said. “Now it’s a matter of supply and demand. They underplanned it. Probably next year, everyone will overplan and we’ll get killed again.”

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