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- Charity focus: Sears supports helping needy children in ads for Levi's. PRIVATE-LABEL LESSONS -- BACK TO SCHOOL: TOP RETAILERS SHOWCASE STORE-BRAND CLOTHING FOR FALL AS SALES IN SEGMENT KEEP SURGING

By Published on .

The nation's leading retailers, buoyed by a sales surge in private-label clothing, are pumping up marketing budgets behind their own clothing lines for the crucial back-to-school and fall selling period.

In-house labels such as J.C. Penney Co.'s Arizona Jeans Co., Wal-Mart Stores' Kathie Lee Gifford and Kmart Corp.'s Route 66 will be featured in new ads this fall as retailers capitalize on the growing private-label clothing trend.

`PROMISCUOUS SHOPPERS'

"Today's customers are promiscuous shoppers," said Lynn Wisdom, national broadcast manager of J.C. Penney, noting that proprietary store brands are "what really can set you apart as a retailer."

Indeed, 30.4% of the $170 billion spent on apparel in retail stores last year was spent on private-label brands, according to consultant NPD Group. That's up from 29.6% of the $150 billion in apparel sales in '95.

At Penney's, the Arizona line accounted for sales of more than $1 billion in '97, said Ms. Wisdom. This year the company is hoping to continue the momentum by padding its Arizona jeans brand advertising budget by 10%.

Executives wouldn't disclose spending on the campaign; the company spent $139 million on measured media last year, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

JUST SHOW THE CLOTHES

Its new spots, from Temerlin McClain, Irving, Texas, show a group of teens walking down a street criticizing advertising, saying they'd rather just be shown the clothing for sale.

The retailer's TV effort this year also will shift to specific support of private-label products, unlike last year's image-driven spots, although the tagline, "J.C. Penney, I love your style," remains.

Other new Arizona additions are a Web site (www.arizonajeans.com), linked to the company's online selling site, a radio campaign and a significant print component through parent and family publications. Penney's will place Arizona spots in 1,200 movie theaters -- a first -- as well as advertise on in-school TV's Channel One and College Network, TV programming piped into campuses nationwide.

The focus on Arizona is no accident: NPD Group reports that private-label jeans sales have grown from 22% of $10 billion in total jeans sales in '95 to 24.5% of $11 billion in total jeans sales in '97.

The effort includes Hispanic print and broadcast via Cartel Creativo, San Antonio.

WAL-MART'S 1ST FOR KATHIE LEE

Wal-Mart, also putting new emphasis on its private labels, is readying its first campaign for its Kathie Lee Gifford clothing line.

In a spot from GSD&M, Austin, Texas, Ms. Gifford and her two children stroll through a store and talk with women trying on clothes. Spending and air date are undetermined. Wal-Mart officials were unavailable for comment.

Kmart, meanwhile, has kicked off a push for its 2-year-old Route 66 line that includes jeans and clothing for boys, girls, men and women. Two spots from Campbell Mithun Esty, Minneapolis, draw on the folklore surrounding the roadway that cuts through America from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif.

SEARS' TKS BASICS

Sears, Roebuck, & Co., meanwhile, is launching a TKS Basics line, a private-label brand with mix-and-match tops and bottoms in children's sizes. But it isn't beefing up private-label spending. "Our strategy remains the same -- to focus on both store brands and national brands," said John Costello, senior exec VP-marketing.

Some observers are predicting a big retail season this fall.

"There will be no losers for back-to-school," said Kurt Barnard, president, Barnard's Retail Trend Report. "America is on a buying binge."

Peter Simon, VP-apparel sourcing division at NPD Group, however, said nothing compelling is driving the industry. "There's no pet rock. There's no Windows 98 for apparel."

Contributing: Mercedes M. Cardona.

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