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Clothing sales down in Washington Co.

May 09, 2009|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Ladies, how many of you are wearing an entirely new outfit today for Mother's Day?

Not many, not in this economy, it seems.

"Instead of buying pants, top, jacket and blah, blah, blah, I think people are now starting to come in to find something -- jewelry, a scarf, a necklace, a top -- to spruce up an outfit they already have," a manager of a women's clothing shop at Valley Mall in Halfway said last week.

The recession "is definitely affecting everything, the numbers (of customers) and sales. It's affected it all," the owner of a downtown Hagerstown women's shop said.

Compared to a year ago, clothing sales fell more than 8 percent to $8 million in Washington County in February, the latest month for which sales tax data is available.

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Sales shrunk by as much as 16 percent at local stores offering clothing for the whole family, and by 11 percent at those selling shoes or specializing in clothing for infants, according to county data obtained by The Herald-Mail from the Maryland Comptroller of the Treasury.

Surprisingly then, the data shows spending at local shops specializing in fashion for women and girls rose almost 2 percent in February, after falling 4 percent in January and 18 percent last December.

The "why" and "where" of February's slight increase isn't easy to determine. The data doesn't identify which stores sold how much.

Women "are still spending, but they're not spending what they did," an assistant manager at a women's clothing store at the mall said.

"One person, like, spends almost nothing, and the next one has, like, a $300, $400 order," she said.

The store's earnings are hurting, said the woman, who would not give her name, saying corporate policy forbids her from talking to the press. "And we've been running really good sales with the economy like it is. We've been having a lot of sales. 'Buy one, get one 75 percent off.' That was one. We never did that before."

Looking at earnings

The management at several national chain stores here declined to talk to a reporter, citing company policy that public comments come only from corporate headquarters.

Officials at the Seattle corporate offices of Christopher & Banks' Valley Mall store did not return a reporter's call Thursday.

But earnings reports the parent companies of several area women's clothing stores have posted on the Web show how bruising the recession has been.

At Christopher & Banks, for instance, what are called "same-store sales" -- those at stores, such as the one in Hagerstown, which have been open for more than a year -- for the 13-week period ending Feb. 28 fell 20 percent compared to the same period last year.

"Our core customer has been spending very sparingly on her wardrobe for the past six months, yet we remain confident that we are well-capitalized to outlast this recession and are also positioned to benefit meaningfully when customers return," company President and CEO Lorna Nagler said in the earnings report.

The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., which has had a store at the mall for years, said its comparable-store sales fell 5.1 percent in April and 11.2 percent in March from a year ago.

Charming Shoppes Inc., whose stores include the Lane Bryant and Fashion Bug stores at the mall, reported a $39 million loss from continuing operations for the 13 weeks ending Jan. 31.

Macy's, which has a store at the mall, reported same-store sales were down 9.1 percent in April, 9.2 percent in March, 8.5 percent in February and 4.5 percent in January.

Elina Kazan, vice president of media relations at Macy's New York City headquarters, declined to discuss sales.

Asked how Macy's has adjusted to the recession, Kazan pointed to a program called "everyday value" she said the company began before the recession, but still serves shoppers well.

"That's where Macy's success lies. ... We offer private label, but also designer brands at various price points, so we are definitely reaching various customer profiles," Kazan said. "So if somebody wants to spend $50 on a pair of shoes, (or) if somebody wants to spend over $150 on a pair of shoes, we have that as well."

Weathering the storm

Lori Ruda, owner of the Lena's of Hagerstown dress shop downtown, had just returned from a quick buying trip to New York City.

Ruda said most of her buying these days is done in Las Vegas, but she went to New York to buy several new lines -- such as Cynthia Ashby, Mary Frances and Beyond Threads -- for her 1 W. Franklin St. store for the fall.

"I have to still meet my customers' needs," she said.

The store, which began here a half-century ago and offers "high moderate to better" style clothing, should not be compared to the "huge chain stores" at the mall, she said.

In the 10 years she has owned Lena's, this one is the worst, Ruda said.

"It's just the overall sales is down, everything," she said.

But, Ruda said she is determined to see it through.

"I'm doing what I need to do and I will be here when everything comes back again," she said. "It's the truth."

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