When times were good, retailers sold sundresses in February and boiled wool sweaters in August.
Now, Americans worried about the recession are buying only what they need today. This new frugality has merchants and suppliers overhauling every aspect of their businesses, from window displays to the fabrics they choose.
It's changing some of the rules of retail.
Joan Danehy, a 63-year-old retired teacher from Cazenovia, N.Y., would always get a head start on spring, buying summer clothes for her grandchildren when it was still chilly in March. She would put her purchases aside and give out the items a few months later when the weather turned warm. This year, she passed by the colorful assortment at Lord & Taylor without buying.
"A year ago, I knew I was going to have money, but now there is this feeling that you are going to need it for something else, paying a bill or buying tires," said Danehy, whose retirement funds have lost half their value. "Not that we were rich, but I didn't worry about tomorrow. Now, the stock market affects every decision I make. I am really sticking to essentials."
Consumers have long griped about merchandise being out of sync with the weather — lots of corduroy in the summer, for example. And while the industry had made some inroads in offering more timely fashions in recent years, it didn't have much incentive to make big changes because shoppers kept buying. Retailers also liked getting items into stores early because the preseason sales helped them gauge how much to reorder.
The recession is forcing retailers to rewrite the rules. For one thing, the pullback by consumers has forced retailers to slash prices at an unprecedented rate to move merchandise.
That has destroyed profits. For the fourth quarter of 2008, retailers' profits dropped 26.6 percent compared with a year earlier, according to Ken Perkins, president of research company RetailMetrics LLC. First-quarter profits are forecast to be down almost 22 percent.
Major retailers including mall-based apparel chains and department stores, are scheduled to report their earnings results over the next three weeks. The new consumer mind-set is expected to dampen sales again — and expedite the shift in what stores put on their shelves.
"This was a big problem for a long time, and it took a disaster for people to reassess what was wrong," said David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group, which advises stores on apparel buying.
ABS by Allen Schwartz, a trendy clothing supplier to department stores, said 65 percent of the tops in its March deliveries had sleeves. A year ago, only about one-third did.
A new Saks Fifth Avenue section on its selling floor called WEAR focuses on what the industry refers to as "wear-now" clothing under brands such as DKNY and Elie Tahari. August deliveries will offer lightweight chiffon and charmeuse fabrics — but in fall colors.
The biggest push is in Saks' trendiest fashions and for the labels that fall right below designer level. But the company is also working with top designers such as Oscar de La Renta to offer lighter-weight fabrics for clothes arriving in stores from June to August.
Department stores, which have been the worst offenders of jumping ahead of the season, are now taking some cues from so-called fast-fashion rivals, said Michael Londrigan, chairman of the fashion merchandising department at the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising in Manhattan. Stores such as H&M and Zara are known for constant deliveries of styles that can be worn right away.
The strategy does require a big balancing act for stores: keeping the selling floor feeling new and fresh while keeping fashions in sync with the weather.
A recent window display at Bloomingdale's flagship store in Manhattan featured clothing that can be worn immediately but that also reflected the trends seen in the fashion shows for the fall collections: 1980s dance club looks such as short, beaded dresses and short skirts. These items were paired with cardigans or motorcycle jackets to jibe with the cool spring weather.
K&G Fashion Superstore, a 100-plus-store division of Men's Wearhouse Inc., plans to stock short-sleeve cotton pique shirts in sage green and other earth tones in August before shifting to a deeper hues like hunter green in September. In August last year, its stores were filled with long-sleeve rugby shirts in dark colors.
The "wear now" strategy also involves focusing even more on fabric innovations. Liz Claiborne Inc. plans to ship a shirtwaist dress under its namesake label this August in cotton fabric that looks like tweed, so it's more suited to last through at least two seasons.
"There were lots of baby steps, but now people are jumping" into offering in-season clothing, said Dave McTague, executive vice president of the company's "partnered brands" division, which includes its namesake label and other brands sold mainly to department stores. "Shoppers are very smart about how they spend, and this is making us more attentive."
But will that be enough to bring shoppers back?
Aylan Dawkins, a 49-year-old executive assistant from Brooklyn, N.Y., used to scour the clothing racks at designer discounter Daffy's every week for bargains on fashionable preseason merchandise. In the past she found deals such as preseason suits discounted for as low as $10 at New York & Co. and gowns for $40, reduced from $400, at a small boutique in Harlem. But now she has stopped buying clothing.
"I am not sure if I am going to have a job," she said.
Even loyal designer customers who bought ahead of time to stay in sync with the couture shows are buying later. Store owners say that given massive layoffs on Wall Street, their best clients are now buying spur-of-the-moment — even for glitzy events.
Usually the mother of a bride buys her dress months before a wedding. But Sara Albrecht, the owner of the Ultimo boutique in Chicago, said one mother bought a dress at the end of last month for her daughter's May 31 wedding. Another shopper who usually buys her entire spring wardrobe in January put it off until just recently.
"I just think it's a permanent lifestyle shift," Albrecht said.