SPRING OFF TO HEALTHY START
Byline: Shirliey Fung
NEW YORK — The spring selling season has barely begun to blossom, but the action has already been positive enough in the high-volume moderate and better departments to allow retailers to put the difficult fourth quarter and markdown-laden holiday season behind them.
One of the big stories to emerge in the early going is the apparent resurgence of Tommy Hilfiger. Stores have been praising the megabrand’s return from its largely unsuccessful detour into techno-influenced, youthful offerings back to its classic preppy styling.
Overall, consumers seem to be responding well to the merchandise, and stores across the country seem optimistic about the direction business is heading. Much of the reason lies in the fact that retailers, girding themselves for a tough retail climate, aggressively slimmed down their stocks, ordered more closely to need or bought narrower assortments.
A few key fashion trends have helped, as well. Color and prints are propelling sales in both price segments, and sweaters and jeanswear continue to be big sellers. Capri pants are showing themselves to have legs for yet another season, and many retailers said the shin-length pants will likely be hot items even through the summer.
At Rich’s/Lazarus/Goldsmith, Hilfiger jeans and T-shirts with Johnny collars have been strong performers.
“Tommy Hilfiger is coming back to life. They have adjusted their styling to suit the true Tommy customer,” said Sheila Kamensky, vice president of fashion direction. “They’ve gone back to where they were really successful and the customer is reacting to it.”
Kamensky said the Federated Department Stores division did not buy less merchandise this season, but instead reevaluated, tightened and narrowed its assortments.
So far, the readjustment seems to be on track. Kamensky said the chain’s sales have been good, mainly because of prints, both geometric and floral, and color. Customers are liking lilac, olive, and black-and-white colorations.
In moderate, shorts, primarily in khaki from Jennifer Moore, are selling well and earlier this year. Colored denim, in pales, is also doing well. In addition, twinsets and big shirt and pantsets from Style & Co. have performed. Private label INC printed bottoms, sleeveless sweaters and blouses have also been racking up good sell-through percentages.
At the two-unit specialty store The Clothes Mine, with shops in Sutter Creek and San Andreas, Calif., owner Louise Nunn said comp-store business is up 20 percent as a result of customers purchasing Erin London pantsets in washable silk, Morning Sun sweatshirts with cat, birdhouse and flower logos and Claudia Richards solid blouses with embroidery.
Jimmy Dawahare, merchandise manager for the Lexington, Ky.-based specialty chain Dawahare’s, said having 10 percent less inventory and faster turns has been keeping his business strong.
“I think the reason we’re selling spring is that we have almost no clearance,” he said.
In his better category, spring sweaters in sleeveless and turtleneck silhouettes with stripes and yellow, navy, green and other bright shades are booking at 20 percent weekly sell-through rates.
Dawahare said customers are returning to traditional preppy looks and Tommy Hilfiger’s sweater knit tops have been a beneficiary of this revival.
Many of last season’s trends are being translated into lighter fabrics for spring at Elder-Beerman, said a spokeswoman for the Dayton, Ohio-based department store. Color is the number-one trend in moderate and better areas, with coral being the bestseller.
Sweaters are continuing to be strong as well, with twinsets and sleeveless bodies leading the pack. Feminine detailing, especially embroideries and scalloped trims, has been popular.
At Gottschalks, soft dressing in the form of loose, knit-related apparel from Karen Kane and Cynthia Max are performing strongly in the better category.
Like many other retailers, Scott Manson, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Gottschalks, is finding Tommy Hilfiger goods ringing up strong sales.
“There’s been a major resurgence with them,” said Manson, citing Hilfiger’s denim and T-shirt programs as the two strongest segments.
On the moderate racks at the department store, dot-print skirts are proving to be the exceptional item of the season. Printed shirts from Clio are bringing in strong early sell-throughs and By Design satin-trim tops and knits with satin trim are bringing in sales, as well.
At the moderate-to-better specialty chain Casual Corner, career apparel has been performing strongly. Cyndie Washburn-Nester, senior director of fashion, said short jackets, shirt-collar jackets with high closures and cotton spandex wrap blouses are doing well. Colors such as brown, coral, kiwi green and blue are driving double-digit sales in structured looks.
Washburn-Nester said although December sales were sluggish for all retailers, business is going well so far this season, partly on the strength of stripes, plaids and prints and greater turnover in merchandise.
J.C. Penney Co. has seen customers purchasing Worthington private label silk shantung blouses and sleeveless sweaters in bright solids from store brand St. John’s Bay, said a spokesman.
Animal prints continue to be strong performers, appearing in fresh colors and in bodies such as capri pants, scooter skirts and hip-hugger bottoms. Bright colors are all selling well at Penney’s, with the color purple coming in as the top performer.
Houston-based moderate department store chain Weiner’s has seen its strongest sales come from the junior department. Denim is the leading seller, with flare bodies and Eighties back-pocket treatment jeans bringing in sell-through rates that go as high as 37 percent. Zana-di, Bongo, U.S. Polo Association and LEI are all scoring this season, said Valerie Mander, vice president.
The misses’ department has also done well with jeanswear. Mander said Gloria Vanderbilt’s dark stretch jeans are leading the pack.
Screen-printed and logo T-shirts emblazoned with glitter lips and words such as “princess” and “angel” have seen weekly sell-through rates of up to 54 percent at Weiner’s.
Capri pants are also doing well in stretch denim and gingham checks.
“It looks like the third year is still the charm,” said Mander about the 17-inch pants that are replacing their shorter cousins as the spring bottom to have. “Shorts are still a question mark, but what I’m gathering, especially for the misses’ market, is that women are abandoning shorts.”
Spring items have just hit the racks at 24-store, Michigan-based Jacobson Stores, but certain items have already established themselves as frontrunners. According to a spokeswoman, stretch cotton wrap blouses from Poleci and Parallel in white, orange, pink and turquoise; big, bold geometric print bottoms from Kenneth Cole, and Lycra spandex geometric and floral-printed halter tops are selling solidly.
Sleeveless sweaters from many vendors continue to be an important trend for Jacobson’s. The spokeswoman said the
retailer has carried the knits, which are selling in cowl neck and funnel neck silhouettes, for a couple of seasons already, but that the customer is still responding with an open wallet.
In the moderate segment, Draper’s & Damon’s is experiencing strong sell-throughs on private label brightly colored silk noil apparel, pique knits from Koret, nautical looks from Cathy Daniels and Erin London, rhinestone-embellished tank tops and T-shirts from various labels, and light-washed denim from Color Me Cotton.
Herman Heinle, executive vice president of merchandise, said capri pants are not only selling early, but they have replaced shorts business.
“Capris will go through summer, at least,” he said.
In better, novelty knit dressing in color blocks and nautical looks are performing well. Tape yarn sweaters from Marisa Christina, San Remo knits and Saint Germain embroidered shirts are keeping business “healthy,” said Heinle.
“We exceeded plan in January and with our plans being up, we have had to order more,” he said. “We are staying relatively aggressive and we feel that our business will continue.”
Bealls has likewise not needed to slim down its assortment. Conrad Szymanski, the president of the 55-unit Bradenton, Fla.-based operation, said, “Historically we have a good spring when there’s plenty of color to sell and prints.”
Szymanski said no particular color palette has been dominant, but there is just a greater proliferation of color in general.
In the moderate segment, Bealls has had double-digit weekly sell-throughs in tank tops, sleeveless sweaters and other layering pieces from such resources as Regent, E.S. Sutton and Designer Original. Customers are choosing to buy the more luxurious fabrics of the moderate market, such as silk, tencel and microfiber.
“We’re getting a good early reaction to printed bottoms — those haven’t been around for a while, especially in capris,” said Szymanski, who added that Gloria Vanderbilt’s capri pants have done particularly well.
The Kellwood Co.’s Sag Harbor and Koret labels are top performers, especially the latter’s offerings in aqua.
Many of the same trends are showing strength in Bealls’ better department. Szymanski said denim offerings in dark and stonewashes from Nautica and Lauren by Ralph Lauren are selling strongly, as well as Liz Claiborne three-quarter sleeve boatneck shirts.