- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2003

There’s finally good news for shoppers looking for a bathing suit or a summer skirt and finding only woolen overcoats in the shops.

A growing number of retailers are offering clothes actually suitable to the season, a change from the decades-old policy of stocking winter clothes in July and summer clothes in January.

That means consumers will find more lightweight clothes and sandals through August — not a rehash of spring and summer styles, but new fall products that can be worn now. In some stores they won’t find a an overcoat or a heavy jacket until October.

Consumers’ growing tendency to put off buying clothes until actually needed — or the shopkeeper’s determination to rush the season — is behind the shift. Unusual weather patterns have exacerbated the problem. Last year, a warmer-than-usual fall left stores with mounds of bulky sweaters left over from July. This spring, which was unusually wet in parts of the country, including the Washington area, resulted in shorts and swimwear languishing in April and May.

Another factor for stores like American Eagle Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch, which cater to younger shoppers, is that a growing number of students are going back to school earlier and need clothes that can be worn in warm weather.

• Old Navy, burned by having too many fleece jackets last August, is delaying those deliveries until mid-September. It is delivering shorts and tank tops in spice tones this month and next.

• At Limited Inc.’s Express stores, consumers won’t find many chunky sweaters in its early fall merchandise this month. Those will be featured in stores in October. Instead, customers will find paper-thin cashmere and lightweight knit tops.

• Family footwear retailer Payless ShoeSource has doubled the number of open-toed shoes available in August from a year ago.

These changes are part of an overall strategy begun several years ago when stores started delivering fabrics that consumers could wear through several seasons. But the latest moves, stores say, mark their biggest effort yet in the direction of climate-friendly clothing.

“When you are a mall-based retailer, you have to be pragmatic,” says Paul Raffin, executive vice president of merchandising at Express. “The customer buys now and wears now.”

But some retailers, including Nordstrom, are successful in getting shoppers to buy the next season’s fashions early. The store lures shoppers with its annual fall sale, which this year is scheduled from July 18 through Aug. 3. Shoppers are enticed to grab fall merchandise, discounted by as much as 40 percent, before the price rises.

There is always the crowd of well-heeled customers and young, trendy customers who want to get a head start on the next season, even without discounts.

Patricia Handschiegel this month plans to buy two fall must-haves: high-boots and a tweed cap.

“You want to be among the first group of women to wear the new trends,” the Los Angeles resident says.

But many more consumers are frustrated with stores’ fashion calendars. Worried about the overall economy, the customers can’t afford to invest in merchandise that they don’t need for the next two to three months.

“I am pretty secure with my job, but raises are a lot slower, and I am becoming more cautious than in the past,” Los Angeles resident Tracee Steinke says.

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