Thursday, February 19, 2004

To the retailing crowd, summer's already here

Merchants cultivating demand

By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

At the Lowe's store in Springdale, Jane Johnson of Glendale selects a flamingo flower in the perennial section with assistance from Will Noble, a seasonal sales specialist. Retailers say people are tired of winter and looking forward to outdoor activities.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/TONY JONES

Shopping for shorts and swimwear might be the last thing on your mind, even with today's warmer temperatures.

But stores that sell warm-weather apparel, lawn and garden supplies, and other outdoor merchandise began making room for spring stock more than a month ago.

"We're selling grills and patio furniture right now,'' said Will Noble, a manager at Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse on East Kemper Road in Springdale. "A lot of people are buying for summer barbecues and Fourth of July celebrations. They know that if they don't buy it now, it won't be around later.''

While sales of spring and summer merchandise won't peak until the weather gets warm, experts say now is a critical time for retailers to push warm-weather goods.

Rob Robertson, who manages Pool & Spa Warehouse on Reading Road in Evendale, said spring and summer merchandising is more about marketing now than actual sales.

"You're not selling pools when it's 20 below zero, but it's important to get the product out in front of the customer before the pool-selling season begins,'' Robertson said. "In the spring, when your customers are looking for a pool, they'll remember that they saw it at your store.''

Intense retail competition has also put pressure on merchants to be first with seasonal merchandise, said Daniel Butler, vice president of retail operations for the National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group.

"There are so many retailers selling similar lines that if you wait for the peak selling season to arrive before you put spring and summer merchandise out, it might be too late,'' Butler said. "The smart retailer already has built up the awareness that 'We have what you're looking for.' That's where people will shop.''

For apparel retailers, turning over seasonal inventory well ahead of Mother Nature is critical for keeping their stores looking fresh and new.

"People are tired of looking at hats and coats,'' said Mandy Collins, a manager at Target in the Center of Cincinnati in Oakley. "Everybody's excited about the warm weather coming, and we try to be proactive in bringing that warm-weather merchandise into our stores.''

Collins said Target's spring fashion lines have been on the sales floor since January, and shorts and swimsuits are already "very hot sellers.''

The early promotion is aimed at customers like Erica Mashie, a self-confessed "shopaholic" who was looking at pastel miniskirts and tank tops recently at the Lazarus-Macy's at Kenwood Towne Centre.

"It seems like my size is always the first to go, so I try to get in the stores early to buy what I want, even if it won't be warm enough to wear it for a couple of months,'' the 32-year-old Sycamore Township woman said.

But not everyone shopping for spring and summer clothes is planning to keep the new duds in the closet.

Families planning vacations and young people planning spring break getaways account for much of the buying, Butler said.

"A lot of people are taking trips to warm-weather places at this time of year, and they're looking for shorts and sandals to wear now,'' he said. "If you're a retailer, you've got to have those items on sale when the customer wants them.''

Sales of spring and summer merchandise are helping to keep the momentum going after most retailers reported a respectable holiday sales season.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, retail sales were up 5.8 percent in January in a year-over-year comparison and have gotten off to a strong start in February - typically two of the least important months in the retail-sales calendar.

The trade group attributed the positive sales trend to the redemption of Christmas gift cards, winter goods on clearance and the arrival of spring merchandise.


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