Byline: Scott Malone

NEW YORK — Sometimes, less is more.
Starting with their spring collections, status jeans brands have tightened up their product offerings considerably, reducing the number of styles by about 25 percent. Most of the cuts have come in their fashion groups, the item-driven creations sent to department stores each month to freshen up the floors.
Executives at Tommy Jeans, Polo Jeans, Guess and DKNY Jeans told WWD that a number of factors lead to these cuts. One major influence is a change in shopping patterns, with jeans buyers hitting the stores with an eye for one or two items they can incorporate into their existing casual wardrobe, rather than shopping for full outfits.
Another primary reason the jeans lines have slimmed down is the resurgent popularity of basic denim jeans and denim as a fabric in sportswear. Over the past few seasons, as they chased sportswear trends like printed tops and bottoms and non-denim pants, jeans actually had come to represent a small fraction of many status jeanswear lines. With denim back in demand, these collections are focusing on their core styles once again.
“There’s been a fundamental shift in shopping patterns,” said Todd Howard, president of juniors and kids at Tommy Jeans. “We’re obviously at the beginning of a major shift in the jeans cycle.”
In addition to the strong demand for jeans, that shift includes an expansion of thinking on basic jeans. They are now a lot more than five-pocket, straight-legged jeans, Howard noted, with lower-rise flares also being regarded now as basics. In addition, he contended that consumers have become much more attuned to subtle details of cut and wash in a given pair of jeans.
With shoppers more focused on jeans, Tommy Jeans has reduced the number of non-basic fashion items it delivers each month, eliminating “costumey” outfits, he added. It has also cut back on tops and non-denim bottoms.
“The fashion now is much more understated,” he said. “There isn’t a lot of fringe that is being brought into the line, because it isn’t what our customers want.”
Overall, this spring Tommy Jeans released about 400 stockkeeping units, down from about 500 a year earlier, Howard noted. But the overall decrease in the size of the line doesn’t tell the whole story.
The brand’s January, February and March fashion deliveries each include about 30 SKUs, noted vice president of merchandising Jennifer Campbell. That’s less than half the 80 SKUs for each fashion delivery that was common a year ago.
Further, added Howard, the company has stepped up its quick-response offering.
“Now, probably at least 25 percent to 30 percent of the business is in quick response,” he said, “Whereas, it would have been less than half that a year ago.”
At Polo Jeans, the line has gotten even tighter, according to Sandra Campos, senior vice president for the women’s business.
“For spring 2001, we reduced our SKU count in total by over 40 percent from a year ago. We have just focused the line, narrowed our assortments to key items that will ultimately sell at retail,” she said. “We still have fashion — true fashion. We have key-item basics and then we have the quick-response stuff. But we don’t have a lot of the extraneous items, the fringe looks. The color palette is more focused.”
The cuts resulted from the Jones Apparel Group division’s observation that consumers were losing interest in overly broad fashion lines.
“At retail, the customer is gravitating to the key items,” Campos said. “When you have too many SKUs on the floor, you do get very over-assorted. You don’t have enough fixtures and you look like you have too much stuff. When you’re narrow, you’re much more about a statement. If you walk by our floors, you see we mean denim and we mean jeans. We’re trying to send a specific message each season.”
To illustrate the degree to which consumers are focusing in on certain items, Campos pointed out that this fall three items are generating 30 percent of sales at Polo Jeans. They are a turtleneck with a small flag logo on the neck that retails for $58, a sweater with a large flag logo on the chest that sells for $68 and logo T-shirts that sell for $24.
“It’s all logo business,” she said. “That’s what’s happening.”
For comparison, in fall 1999, Polo Jeans had six items that were responsible for 40 percent of its business.
While companies are narrowing their fashion deliveries, one thing that most aren’t doing is reducing the number of deliveries. Instead, they’re sticking to their once-a-month schedule.
“We think it’s much more important to have new flow,” said Susan Davidson, president over the DKNY Jeans business, produced under license by Liz Claiborne Inc. “You need to keep the customer’s interest with new deliveries every month.”
The one company that is somewhat reducing its delivery schedule is Tommy Jeans. But it’s not cutting back from monthly deliveries, it’s just pulling back from the past, when it would sometimes ship more than one delivery a month, Campbell said.
While some vendors acknowledged that managing their lines is easier when they’re narrower, most contended that the shift in fashion tastes from hit-or-miss items like prints, to the more-predictable jeans category, has made it unnecessary to provide so many styles.
“We were in more of a print mode for a while and that leant itself to more non-denim bottoms,” said Leslie Singer, vice president of sales for young contemporary and girls at Guess Inc. “Now we’re seeing a shift into more denim-based looks.”
That company reduced its spring offering, in terms of SKUs, by about 20 percent, she said. However, it too has stepped up its jeans offerings.
“We’re definitely broadening denim, in terms of fits and focusing on different washes as well,” she said.
Overall, Singer said that retailers’ reaction to a tighter line has been favorable, adding that the company expects to keep its lines tighter in future seasons.