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Apparel Stores Still in the Doldrums

March 28, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ Spring is supposed to be a time of rebirth and renewal, but the new season finds apparel retailers still languishing amid the doldrums that began last summer and continued into 1988.

Shoppers complain the stores are stocked with the same old things and skirts that are too short, and they’re coming home with few or no purchases.

″The type of merchandise that died in August″ is what most women are finding as they shop for clothes, said Fred Wintzer, a retail industry analyst with the investment firm Alex. Brown & Sons Inc. in Baltimore.

Apparel sales fell off sharply last summer when consumers, seeing fashions that looked too much like the clothes they already had, all but stopped buying.

They continued to shop gingerly through the winter, forcing retailers to slash their prices. The result was a disappointing fourth quarter.

The stores held out some hope for strong pre-Easter sales this month, but so far, ″March is looking very dismal,″ Wintzer said.

″The merchandise in the stores now is merchandise by and large ordered in 1987, before they had the sales problem,″ he said.

Economic uncertainty has been blamed for a slowdown in consumer spending in recent months, but it doesn’t appear to be a factor in the clothing stores’ current slump.

″The major thing is the fashion cycle,″ said Joseph Ronning, an analyst with Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.

Ronning noted that clothing prices - which shot up last year because of the dollar’s decline against other currencies - appear to have moderated. Ideally, that should work in the retailers’ favor, but lower prices are not enough to make consumers buy clothes they don’t like.

Ronning predicted the retailers would have sluggish sales and flat earnings in the first quarter, with business picking up a little in the second quarter. A lid on expenses and more favorable tax rates would help the companies’ balance sheets, he said.

In the meantime, the retailers are feverishly test-marketing new styles, hoping something will catch the consumer’s eye and turn business around - what Wintzer called ″a massive search for a fashion direction.″

But even if something clicked by the end of this month, the merchandise would not be available nationally until June at the earliest and more likely, August, Wintzer said.

Ronning agreed: ″We’re hoping to see something coming in for the fall, but that’s the earliest that I can hope to see some exciting trends coming in.″

Susan Schmierer, an analyst with Prudential-Bache Securities Inc., saw an additional problem to depress sales: Women are uncertain about whether to buy the shorter skirts and dresses that retailers are offering.

″They’re pretty hesitant about hemlines,″ she said. Said Ronning of their quandary: ″Everyone is pretty skeptical and no one wants to be the first on the block to do it.″

Twenty years ago, the miniskirt was a big hit, but these are different times. What women wore in the free-spirited late 1960s doesn’t fit in with today’s lifestyles.

″The demographics have shifted,″ said Ronning. ″There’s more working women, more professional women.″

″You’re talking about that big baby-boom generation who were all 23, 24, 25 years old at that point,″ he said. ″What you do when you’re 25 is not what you do when you’re 45 - you’re not going to dress the same way.″

Gayle Wyroba, fashion director of Lazarus department stores in the Midwest, agreed that career women have been hesitant about wearing shorter skirts to the office, although she said they are more inclined to buy them for leisure time.

Sensing that there might not be a stampede by consumers to buy the shorter lengths, retailers and manufacturers have included a variety of lengths in their lines.

″We realized our customer base represents a large age span,″ said Rebecca Cannon, vice president for sales at Breckenridge Inc., a manufacturer. ″No matter what the latest trend would be, we would always keep some percentage of our line or some percentage of our skirt lengths safe.″

Fashion watchers say shorter skirts have done better in some parts of the country than in others. They’re more popular in larger cities and on the East and West coasts.

Clothing manufacturers have responded to the situation by including a broader selection of skirt lengths in their fall lines.

The spring line at Breckenridge included 65 percent short skirts and 35 percent below-the-knee styles, Ms. Cannon said. But for fall, the mix will be 20 percent short, 60 percent below the knee and 20 percent will fall to just above the ankle.

Meanwhile, stores are faced with the problem of moving merchandise that just won’t seem to sell. Some retailers have already resorted to taking price markdowns, conceding that this is going to be a difficult spring.

End Adv Monday March 28

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