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Retail Trends

Power Players Apparel

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Apparel retailing has been traveling a bumpy road that includes everything from volatile commodities pricing to negative fallout from some unscrupulous suppliers lying about working conditions at the factories where garments are made. Then there are the clothing makers — many digital commerce startups — who sell directly to consumers.

For years, specialty clothing store chains weren’t viewed as victims but as predators poaching department stores’ apparel customers. But with approximately $90 billion in sales last year, apparel specialty store power players as a group are approaching the collective figures of department store power players.

Led by TJX, off-price retailers dominate the apparel group. Though not quite as large as Kohl’s and only about 60 percent the size of Macy’s in terms of sales, TJX is considerably larger than such national department store chains as J.C. Penney, Sears and Nordstrom. Department store companies have been expanding into specialty operations rather than core departments, with the likes of Nordstrom Rack and Saks Off Fifth. Macy’s spawned Aéropostale and then sold off what is now a $2.2 billion specialty chain.

Runner-up Ross Stores combines two distinctive models aimed at value customers: dd’s Discounts, with 115 stores aimed at consumers with annual incomes in the $30,000 to $40,000 range; and Ross, with 1,112 stores targeting shoppers with about 50 percent more income. Ross Stores continues to benefit from the frugality the public developed in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Sales in the first quarter of the current fiscal year were stronger than anticipated and pushed same store sales up 3 percent.

The company’s chains “benefit from our ability to flow a larger percentage of fresh merchandise to our stores by operating our business with lower inventory levels,” president and COO Michael O’Sullivan told securities analysts in a recent conference call, adding that plans call for about 60 new Ross stores and 20 dd’s Discounts this year.