NEW YORK — Upscale women’s apparel retailers paced the field in same-store sales for August, while many moderate and lower-end stores had lukewarm gains or declines.

Hot categories were denim and plaid. Vests, dresses, accessories, intimate apparel and shoes sold well.

Front-runners in the same-store sales race were Neiman Marcus Group, up 11.3 percent; Ann Taylor Stores Corp., up 11.2 percent; J.C. Penney Co. stores, up 10.9 percent; Talbots Inc., up 7 percent; Federated Department Stores, up 5.9 percent, and The Bon-Ton, up 5 percent.

Sears Roebuck & Co. cooled a bit in August with same-store sales gains of 5.2 percent, well below its 9.8 percent pace so far this year.

On the down side, The Gap Inc. posted a 5 percent same-store sales decline, and the stock dropped 4 3/4, or 11 percent, to 38 1/4 Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange. Total sales rose 6 percent to $309 million from $291 million.

The Limited Stores eked out flat same-store sales, after four months of declines. Total sales rose 7 percent to $543.9 million from $506.3 million. Same-store sales among its main women’s apparel businesses were in the negative mid-single digits for Express and Lerner New York, and negative mid-teens for its struggling Limited stores division. The company said results improved at Express each week as the month progressed. At Limited stores, the company said it believes that higher-quality career wear with fashion content is the right strategy, and the division is well-positioned for the fourth quarter. Victoria’s Secret stores and catalog performed well, the company said.

Neiman Marcus Group’s total sales increased 7.3 percent to $147 million from $136.9 million. Among the divisions, Neiman Marcus stores’ same-store sales increased in the high teens, fueled in part by the shift of the “Last Call” promotion into August from July. Same-store sales for NM Direct and Bergdorf Goodman were up in the mid-single digits. At Contempo Casuals, store closings have been completed, with 40 units shuttered and 248 remaining. Same-store sales were off, in the mid-to-high single digits, an NMG spokeswoman said.

Ann Taylor Stores Corp. racked up a 33 percent sales surge to $43.1 million from $32.4 million.

Talbots Inc.’s sales jumped 18 percent to $44 million from $37.2 million. Arnold B. Zetcher, Talbots’ chairman and chief executive officer, said the different store concepts are all performing strongly, with Talbots Petites stores posting the highest gains. Casualwear and sweaters sold well in misses’ and petite stores, he added, citing the Midwest as a strong area for business.

“August sales continued to strengthen,” said Federated Department Stores chairman Allen I. Questrom, noting this reflects strengthening of business in the Northeast, where the economy continues to improve. Sales rose 11.6 percent to $604.9 million from $542.2 million. Questrom also cited “continuing improvement in our sales trend for ready-to-wear apparel, which may bode well for the fall season.”

A Federated spokeswoman said all categories of sportswear, dresses, suits, coats and juniors, intimate apparel, shoes and fashion accessories did better than expected.

Penney’s posted an 11 percent sales increase to $1.2 billion from $1.1 billion. William R. Howell, chairman, said the gains were above plan, sparked by strong results in back-to-school merchandise. A spokesman said jeanswear led the way in all categories, with Penney’s Arizona private label very strong. Other hot sellers included women’s and junior sportswear, cosmetics and women’s accessories. Family shoes sold well, as did athletic footwear. Penney’s catalog business posted a 9 percent gain, with strength in sportswear and infants’ apparel.

At Sears, sales rose 5.1 percent to $2.6 billion from $2.4 billion. Merchandise Group chairman Arthur C. Martinez said women’s ready-to-wear, accessories and fine jewelry were strong, as were men’s apparel and home offerings. Women’s apparel sales increases were in the high-single digits. A spokeswoman said plaid was the top pattern, and denim was also hot. Dresses, vests, intimate apparel — including a private label push-up bra — wallets on a string, backpacks in all sizes and suspenders have sold well.

Spiegel Inc.’s Eddie Bauer unit posted a 6 percent same-store sales increase, with even sales in women’s and men’s apparel. Total Spiegel sales jumped 28 percent to $190.7 million from $149.5 million. John J. Shea, vice chairman, president and ceo, said “weakness in summer clearance promotions affected August sales.” Going forward, he said, “We are cautiously optimistic about our fall offerings, acknowledging the fact that consumer confidence has recently flattened.”

At Carson Pirie Scott & Co., sales rose 3 percent to $78.3 million from $76 million, with same-store sales up 4.6 percent. Stanton J. Bluestone, president and ceo, cited favorable weather and store renovations. “The early selling of fall apparel, particularly in categories of moderate sportswear, special sizes and children’s, resulted in surprisingly strong sales increases,” he said.

Dayton Hudson posted a lackluster 1.4 percent same-store sales gain, dragged down by Mervyn’s 8 percent same-store sales drop. Total sales at DH were up 7.8 percent to $1.6 billion from $1.5 billion. Robert Ulrich, chairman, said August sales were below recent trends at all three divisions. “Target’s business continues to be very healthy,” he noted, but “Mervyn’s back-to-school business was weaker than planned, especially in denim and footwear.”

At Target, total sales rose 15 percent, with comparable-store sales up 6 percent.

Same-store sales at the department-store division increased 1 percent. Hot sellers in bridge were plaids, men’s wear looks, jumpers and pleated skirts. In dresses, day-to-dinner offerings were strong, especially in satin-backed crepe. Denim dresses, barn jackets, thermal and pigment-dyed knits were also hot, a spokesman said.

Mervyn’s total sales slid 5 percent, but its bright spots in women’s apparel included men’s wear styling, vests, pleated skirts, tartans and plaids.

Those with negative same-store sales included: Clothestime, off 15 percent; Merry Go Round Enterprises, 13 percent; Designs Inc., 8 percent; Younkers, 5 percent; Charming Shoppes, 4 percent; Filene’s Basement, 2 percent, and Claire’s Stores, 1 percent.

Among discounters, Kmart posted a 3.7 percent same-store sales gain, and sales were up 8.6 percent to $2.8 billion from $2.5 billion. Joseph Antonini, chairman, said, “Sales in August strengthened considerably from the pace in recent months.”

Wal-Mart racked up a 22 percent sales gain to $6.8 billion from $5.6 billion, and same-store sales increased 6.6 percent.

At Dollar General Stores, comparable-store sales climbed 17.2 percent. Jamesway Stores, expected to emerge from Chapter 11 in January, posted an impressive 13 percent same-store sales gain.

— Fairchild News Service

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