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Retailers' hopes for a pickup in apparel sales this spring are fraying.

Overall retail sales in January were lackluster, and retailers are putting most of the blame on the apparel category, which has performed poorly since last fall.

Analysts cite a continuing lack of fashion excitement in women's apparel, but some observers believe the deeper problem is that consumers' lifestyles have changed and retailers aren't acknowledging it.

"The apparel arena won't improve until de signers realize consumers are smarter now and they're simply not going to buy unwearable, impractical fashions," said Wendy Liebmann, president of retail consultancy WSL Marketing, New York. "People will buy comfortable, practical, versatile clothing only, but [retailers] keep pushing this just plain ugly stuff on us."

Examples of the latest women's apparel disasters include Edwardian-theme vests, jackets and ruffly blouses that are difficult to wear to work or even restaurants.

"It was a Mad Hatter look for winter, with lots of velvet, complex looks such as vests worn outside of blouses outside of jackets and ruffles that simply got in women's way," Ms. Liebmann said.

Retail consultant Kurt Barnard concurred: "Women rejected off-the-wall fashions this season. They were only interested in buying things they knew they could wear for a long time, which didn't include trendiness."

The retail industry, including all durable goods sold in all categories, totaled $1.9 trillion in 1992, the most recent figures released by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Apparel and accessories stores, excluding department stores, represented $104 billion in sales for the same period.

Department stores carrying high-fashion items including R.H. Macy & Co., Bloomingdale's and Dayton Hudson Department Store Co. have been hit hardest by the apparel downturn, with low single-digit sales increases last month, vs. the year-earlier period.

But some were less affected, including Sears, Roebuck & Co. with a 7.9% sales increase during January at stores open at least one year.

Despite January results, the Sears Merchandise Group earlier this month reported fourth quarter net income of $310.3 million, lower than analysts expected. Even so, it was sharply higher than year-ago results, when Sears posted a loss of $1.46 billion. Overall, Sears reported record income for 1993 of $2.37 billion, compared with a loss of $3.93 billion in 1992. The company continued to benefit from last year's repositioning that emphasizes moderate-price apparel and home furnishings.

In terms of same-store sales in January, J.C. Penney Co.'s rose 4.6%, a decline from 10% same-store gains in December. Wal-Mart Stores, which has typically reported double-digit gains, said sales in stores open at least a year inched up only 4% from a year ago; Kmart Corp.'s crept up just 2.1%.

Sales of home fashions, furniture and electronics continue to fare better, underscoring consumers' lifestyle choices affecting buying patterns, said Jason Bramm, an economist with the Conference Board.

"So-called `baby boomers' represent a huge chunk of the population that's bought homes and refinanced existing homes recently, where they're spending a lot of their time and their money. Apparel has been a victim of circumstances," Mr. Bramm said.

Despite apparel woes, high-end department stores catering to designer-conscious consumers have been somewhat less affected by general trends.

Neiman Marcus Co. said its same-store January sales increased 5.2%, helped by the designers themselves.

Earlier this month, Neiman Marcus mailed a 38-page catalog created by designer Giorgio Armani to 400,000 customers, showcasing men's and women's designs for spring.

Next month, Neiman Marcus is cooperating with Harper's Bazaar for an exclusive 26-page insert in the Hearst Magazines' title, featuring clothes by 30 different designers.

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