NEW YORK — Is there trouble at the ranch?

Double RL, which Ralph Lauren last May predicted “could be my biggest launch yet,” isn’t meeting many retailers’ expectations, and there are widespread reports of stacks of expensive jeans gathering dust.

Of course, it is the line’s first season and Lauren executives insist they’re on target, though privately some admit there are “growing pains.”

Lance Isham, executive vice president of sales and merchandising for Polo-Ralph Lauren Corp., maintained that the firm is pleased with the RRL launch, especially in the 36 doors that have full RRL collection shops. He conceded that there are a few kinks to iron out with prices and that some will be lowered for spring.

Another glitch has been in selling classification pieces — which are in some 400 major stores — without the full shop environment.

Isham added that it’s a tough time to debut a new jeanswear line.

“We opened 36 collection shops around the country and 28 of those are very successful,” he said, citing Nordstrom’s, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s as retailers who have had success with the line. “The collection shops in the south part of the country have been less strong, most likely because of the weights of many of the fabrics that were used for fall.”

But, according to market reports, there are millions of dollars worth of inventory being returned. The company is said to be taking back an estimated $10 million in merchandise, rather than see it go on sale, according to sources.

Executives at several key stores said the problems with the line boil down to the following:

  • Confusion about RRL’s target customer.
  • High prices.
  • An oversaturated jeans market.
  • Ill-fitting jeans.
  • An abundance of authentic vintage looks already available at thrift stores.

RRL, however, does have its share of supporters.

Fred Hackett, Nordstrom’s regional merchandise manager for men’s wear in Washington, confirmed that the Seattle store is doing well with its RRL shop and that two of the four doors carrying classifications are doing well, the other two just “so-so.”

“It’s done surprisingly well for us,” he said. “We’re finding that while the young customer may have been their target, the guy who buys a cashmere sweater will come over the RRL to buy a great jacket. We’ve had strong sell-throughs in woven tops and outerwear in particular and accessories, which I thought were priced high.”

He added that the store has cut back on its jeans assortment, honing in on a few styles that have sold well.

“There’s still a customer who likes to be romanced, and that’s who this is attracting,” Hackett continued. “I think we’re also lucky in that Seattle is urban but it has a strong outdoors connection. This line amplifies that feeling.”

Likewise for Neiman Marcus, which reported that the line is doing well in the five full RRL shops and 22 doors that carry classifications.

Robert Greening, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of men’s sportswear at Neiman’s, said: “Generally, we’ve been pleased with it. I’ve heard that some department stores with suburban locations have not been as pleased, and I think that’s understandable. But for us, we’ve placed it in very important urban stores for us — although it is in Troy, Mich., which is a suburban locale — and we’ve gotten a broad reaction in terms of the age range of customers.

“I think he’s done a great job of interpreting the vintage look,” Greening continued. “If there was anything negative about the collection, it’s that it was bottoms-heavy. But we’ve addressed that for spring.”

But numerous other interviews with retail and jeanswear executives raised the same trouble spots for the line, particularly that the first season’s collection is not pulling in the young, hip, urban shopper that the collection is aimed at.

And — as the sluggish sales record of the RRL 18-wheel truck tour of college campuses indicates — college kids are not likely to pay $150 for a flannel shirt or $70 for beat-up jeans when they can find the real thing, albeit used, at thrift stores for about a third of the price.

In the same way, according to several major store executives, the typical Polo customer just doesn’t get the thrift shop look and is not interested in looking like he just walked out of a Seattle Salvation Army store.

Likewise, ethnic youths who are making Polo a hot inner city label along with such names as Timberland and Tommy Hilfiger, are not interested in the grunge and vintage attitude RRL projects. They buy these designer labels because they have a clean, preppy look.

One case in point is Urban Outfitters. A company executive, who declined to be named, said the store had been approached by Polo to sell RRL. The specialty store — which caters to college kids and young urbanites with hip, contemporary and oftentimes, trendsetting clothes — is exactly the market Lauren wanted to reach.

Another source at the company confirmed the line has had problems at the 10 Urban Outfitters that offered it this season.

“They’re trying to sell to a college audience and it’s not right for a combination of reasons,” said the source. “It’s that the jeans are $78, and college kids won’t pay that for any jeans now. They used to for Girbaud, but you’ll see we have very little Girbaud in the store now. It has to be something really new that they don’t have and the fit has to be great. This line doesn’t offer new things and the fit isn’t great. They can buy vintage pieces for less in our stores.”

The source said the company was pulling the line out of six stores for spring and the remaining four stores that will carry the line will all be in major urban areas. The retailer also hopes to downplay the jeans and focus on the novelty sportswear pieces — such as khakis, $70 novelty shirts, and work wear style pants. The source indicated, however, he wasn’t sure if Polo executives would agree to have it bought like that.

Then there’s the problem of fit — many sources said the jeans simply don’t. It’s a problem, added retail executives, that is not new to Lauren.

“Ralph’s never been successful with jeans, in all these years,” said one retail executive. “And it’s not going to work if you don’t get the basic bottoms right in a line like this one.”

Isham addressed these issues point by point.

He noted that the idea that the line is targeted mainly at a young, urban customer that wears thrift shop clothing is a misperception, perhaps fueled by the line’s initial ad campaign.

“We want to appeal to a young-thinking customer, whether that’s someone who’s 30 or 50,” he said. “The collection is eclectic. But it’s not all grunge and urban. We will be launching a new marketing campaign that relates more fully to the RRL brand as a whole.”

As for the high prices, Isham admitted there was a problem and said that more lower priced items will be included for spring. “There will not be a spring-summer equivalent of the $155 wool shirts,” he said.

“There’s more breadth and an expansion to other price points,” he added. “Spring and summer is a lot different. There a T-shirts for $20 and $30 and cotton camp shirts for $60, that sort of thing.”

Additionally, he said the basic stonewashed jeans that were $68 this fall will be dropped in price about $10 to around $58. The vintage wash jeans, which Isham claimed have sold well in the collection shops and in specialty stores, will stay at $78.

On the fit of the jeans and the success of the jeanswear line in general, Isham conceded that the denim industry is on a downturn and that it’s a tough time to introduce a jeanswear collection.

The company will be “backing off” from a tight fitting, boot-cut, authentic jeans that many stores found was cut too small for most customers. “We had two fits, one was too small, probably, for most stores to sell, but we’ve had no complaints about the vintage fit jeans, which is loose and appeals to all consumers,” he added. He noted that for spring, the classifications category will feature more novel knitwear, shirts and antique wash chinos. In tops, the firm will pull back from denim and chambray.

Isham conceded that the artsy, thrift shop displays in the full shops were confusing to some customers, and that the firm will now merchandise the line in more coordinated groupings.

He stressed again that the line has been doing well in urban areas and that the assortments being offered to stores in the rest of the country are being honed.

As for the reports of widespread returns, Isham said, “There is no one policy. We’re addressing every store uniquely.”

But Polo Ralph Lauren is still keeping a tight control on the retailers that are carrying it, and despite Isham’s report that the firm is pleased with the launch of RRL, some tell a different story.

Parts of the collection are now being offered at sale prices in several Manhattan stores, including Bloomingdale’s. But the store is skittish about admitting it: According to one source, “sale” signs are not allowed to be displayed in the RRL shop, although the collection is now on sale at 30 percent off.

Bloomingdale’s executives were not available to comment on the line, but one inside source said RRL “is not doing great, although we’re probably doing better with it than other stores, from what I’ve heard.”

Executives at May Co., another major RRL customer, did not return phone calls about the line. But a source at the chain said sales of RRL “have been disappointing.”

“We think they’ll probably be redefining it in terms of tops and bottoms because the tops have been doing much better than the bottoms,” said the retailer.

One retailer noted that the RRL shops are not easy for ordinary customers or sales help to grasp. “People who like to dress in the antique-y, flea market style buy the real thing. It’s a sophisticated concept. It doesn’t sell in the department stores unless you have all the Lauren people there to help the customer put it together.”

One Florida retailer that has both a RRL shop and items from the collection in several doors said he perceives the problems as marketing-related.

“It’s not understood by the current Polo customer. They don’t get worn-out jeans. And the younger customer will not pay that price — at least not for Polo or Ralph Lauren. It’s not a name they really want. What we’ve found is that the commodity-based pieces are not doing well — the jeanswear pieces, mainly. Some of the sportswear is selling. So how is he going to really build volume on this for the department stores?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of specialty stores are reporting good results.

American Rag in Los Angeles, for example, is doing well with RRL. Mark Werts, a co-owner, said he placed a small RRL shop — about 15 feet by 10 feet — in his store on Melrose and is pleased with the results.

“Without any question or doubt it’s meeting our expectations,” he said. “Our customer understands the vintage look and doesn’t have a problem with paying $60 or $70 for a cotton shirt or the $70 cotton flannels we carry. But my thinking is that a lot of the retailers who are carrying this don’t understand it and their customers don’t. We also were allowed to cherrypick the line for what we wanted. We didn’t have to go for the half- million dollar shop and the full thing, the accessories all that. The accessories are too expensive — I mean a canvas war surplus belt for $40 — the customer won’t go for them.”

A spokesman for Burdines, which has a full RRL shop in its Dadeland store and pieces in other doors, confirmed that the more novelty sportswear pieces are doing better than other aspects of the line.

“The collection is doing well in Dadeland, where we have a full-blown shop, and the sportswear is doing well as pieces in other doors,” he said, choosing not to comment on the jeanswear elements of the line.

“I think, ultimately,” said a competing jeans executive, “that Ralph Lauren will have to decide who the consumer is going to be for this line and make adjustments accordingly. Most likely, it’s going to be a 40-ish yuppie who wants a comfortable flannel shirt, if RRL is going to do big business.”