Americans are increasingly shopping in their own closets for new looks, so merchants are diving in to help out.
Clothing retailers are spotlighting a number of bold items this fall — from leather pants and jackets with structured shoulders to sequined tops and skirts — to persuade strapped consumers they can update their wardrobes without buying a new look head to toe.
At luxury merchant Neiman Marcus, for example, employees are explicitly asking shoppers about what their wardrobes already include, instead of just helping them stuff their closets with new things. But persuading financially squeezed shoppers to open their wallets without dangling fat discounts continues to be challenging.
Data on retailers' same-store sales for June, to be released Thursday, are expected to show another month of stagnating sales. And federal job data released late last week that showed rising joblessness and shrinking wages for those still employed spurred worry over shoppers' spending later this year and into the holiday season.
Merchants rely more now on shoppers' paychecks to fuel purchases because consumers' two other key sources of funding — credit cards and home equity loans — have shrunk. But, seeing their earnings dwindle, shoppers are continuing to seek 70 percent discounts.
Anything they buy at regular price must stand out.
"People are not buying the whole trend look," said Jennifer Talbott, spokeswoman for Intermix, a 24-store chain with most of its stores in New York. "But they still want to look fresh and update their wardrobe."
Pairing of old and new trends
Talbott noted the new fall items can be paired with last fall's trends. For example, Intermix will suggest shoppers pair this fall's military jackets with last year's peasant blouses.
"There are always going to be a plethora of trends, but right now, it's about creating a desire," said Hope Greenberg, fashion director for Lucky Magazine.
Retailers are expected to post a 4.5 percent decline in same-store sales for June compared with a year earlier, about in line with May's decline of 4.6 percent, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs Index.
Same-store sales are sales at stores open at least a year and considered a key metric for the industry. The results released Thursday will exclude business at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which stopped reporting same-store sales monthly after it released data for April.
"There is no catalyst to spend for the second half," said Ken Perkins, president of retail consulting firm Retail Metrics LLC. "If fall business stinks, then all bets are off for the holiday shopping season."
Retail analyst Jennifer Black expects same-store sales declines to continue through the fourth quarter. Declines are expected to ease in September through December, when results will be compared with last autumn, when consumer spending went into freefall after the financial meltdown ballooned. Even though spending is stabilizing — at weak levels — a small decline is expected because stores have cut their inventory as much as 20 percent and lowered prices, she said.
Consumer confidence down
The Labor Department reported last week that employers cut 467,000 jobs in June, more than expected, and the jobless rate reached a 26-year high of 9.5 percent. Wages shrank to their lowest in nearly a year as stores furloughed workers and employers reduced work hours to an average 33-hour work week, the lowest on record since 1964.
And rising unemployment pushed consumer loan delinquencies to a record high in the first quarter, according to data released Tuesday by the American Bankers Association.
Job worries caused consumer confidence, as measured by the nonprofit Conference Board, to drop in June, reversing a three-month upward trend fueled by a stock market rally that also is fizzling.
Lucky magazine's Greenberg said consumers are focusing on items they love instead of fitting into a trend. "They want something with lasting appeal," she said.
Neiman Marcus spokeswoman Ginger Reed said the store will play up a number of standout items from leopard print to motorcycle jackets while pushing the color red in items from handbags to shoes.
Richard Erani, president of Chuckies New York, which operates two designer shoe locations here, said it's focusing on open-toe ankle boots and chunky sandals, merchandised with thick tights, looks he believes shoppers don't have. Like many luxury stores, Chuckies will be offering less expensive items — though most of its shoes will still run $700. Chuckies has struggled with about a 25 percent drop in sales this year compared with last, and Erani hopes the new sharpened focus will spur sales.
"I feel it is going to be better," he said.