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After more than a year of clearance items, markdowns and other price promotions, retailers are finally saddling up and trying to break consumers' addiction to discounts.
But will shoppers call their bluff?
According to analysts' store checks, the deep discounts that have plagued the retail industry—and slashed companies' margins in their wake—have moderated over the past few weeks, the result of lean inventory levels and a more confident consumer.
Still, promotions remain elevated—something experts don't expect to abate any time soon.
"The core underlying issue has not changed … in that there's an imbalance of supply and demand," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. "We believe that this is going to be a promotional spring, just like it was a promotional holiday."
Retailers running the gamut of categories, including teen label American Eagle, specialty store Express and leather goods firms Coach and Kate Spade have all recently pulled back on their promotional strategies.
At American Eagle and Express, shoppers have continued making purchases despite a reduction in discounts, whereas Coach is preemptively pulling back on its promotional cadence in hopes of restoring its reputation as a must-have brand. Similarly, under the new leadership of CEO Brian Cornell, Target has focused more on the "expect more" aspect of its "expect more, pay less" strategy.
"The segments of apparel land where there's strong growth, you're not seeing [promotions]," Johnson said.
Retailers have also been less aggressive with their email blitzes. According to data from Experian Marketing, 52 percent of retailer mailings had offers in the subject line over the holiday season; that number fell to 44 percent in January, and dipped further to 37 percent in February.
That's not to say that things have leveled off across the mall. According to Sterne Agee analyst Ike Boruchow, who tracks promotions across 46 retailers and their websites, the first two weeks of March offered a smaller percentage of "more promotional" events compared to a year ago. Still, only 27 percent of the names tracked were regarded as "less promotional."
Boruchow noted increased discounting at Gap's namesake and Old Navy brands, as well as at Michael Kors. Other analysts cited deep promotions at Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister, as well as Ann Taylor Loft.
"Despite the sequential improvement, the absolute level of discounting remains elevated," Boruchow wrote in a note to investors.
While promotions have eased over the past few weeks, consumers don't need to wave goodbye to the steep discounts they've grown accustomed to. Analysts point to delayed spring deliveries—a result of the backlog at the West Coast ports—and an earlier Easter as two potential catalysts for deals into April.
There are also several fundamental changes that will keep the sales rolling. For one, the popularity of off-price and fast-fashion stores will continue to put pressure on full-price stores. One example is Abercrombie & Fitch's A&F Essentials line, which took the price on basic T-shirts from $30 to around $15, Johnson said.
For another, despite some consolidation in the industry—including trimmed store fleets and recent bankruptcy filings from brands such as Delia's and Coldwater Creek—there are simply too many apparel stores out there, Johnson said.
That leads to a lot of sameness when hopping from store to store, Johnson said. Therefore, aside from retailers that offer differentiated merchandise or a limited quantity of items, shoppers are savvy enough to know that if they wait a few weeks, they can get the same thing at a lower price.
"Nobody ever buys stuff at full price when it first goes onto the floor early in the quarter … because they see the pattern month after month, year after year," Johnson said.