Apparel Retailers Post Mixed Results; Cite Slow Spending

U.S. apparel retailers turned in a mixed batch of results Wednesday and said sales trends have softened recently due to the weakening U.S. economy.

Upscale chains Saks and Neiman Marcus posted better quarterly profits as higher-end customers and tourists shopped, but even they saw sales weaken for the month of February.

Meanwhile, Brown Shoe said profit rose but was weaker than expected and Chico's FAS turned in a quarterly loss. Chico's, which operates White House/Black Market as well as its namesake stores, said February sales at stores open at least a year fell more than expected.

U.S. retailers have come under pressure this year as higher gasoline and food prices and fears of recession have led consumers to cut back. Apparel retailers have been further hit as clothing styles have failed to attract buyers.

Saks and privately held Neiman Marcus said the spending slowdown was affecting all levels of business but was especially evident at the lower end.

"Our sense is that the aspirational customer has pulled back somewhat in response to concerns about the U.S. economy and stock and housing markets," Neiman Marcus Chief Executive Burton Tansky said during a conference call.

Neiman Marcus said same-store sales for its namesake and Bergdorf Goodman stores fell 7.4 percent in February. Saks said its same-store sales rose 3.4 percent in February -- better than the 0.2 percent drop analysts had expected, but weakening from the fourth quarter's 9 percent rise.

"Sales increases in several of our previously high-growth rate businesses such as handbags, footwear and men's have slowed," Saks Chairman Steve Sadove said.

One bright spot was intimate apparel maker Maidenform Brands , which reported Tuesday that growth in its wholesale branded business helped its quarterly profit double.

Uninspiring Fashion

Brown Shoe's CEO Ron Fromm said during a conference call that his company's fourth-quarter results reflected the tough spending backdrop and an "uninspiring fashion season."

Chico's FAS, which has been in a slump since last year, forecast lower earnings for the first half of 2008. The company's CEO said corrective measures being taken in response to fashion missteps were being "masked by the slowdown in retail overall and in the 'missy' sector in particular."

Chico's had a net loss of $20.5 million, or 12 cents a share, for its fiscal fourth quarter ended Feb. 2, compared with earnings of $18.2 million, or 10 cents a share, a year earlier.

Brown Shoe, owner of Naturalizer and Franco Sarto brands, posted net profit of $14 million, or 33 cents a share, for the fourth quarter, below the 37 cents analysts had expected.

Fourth-quarter earnings at Saks came to $39.5 million, or 26 cents a share, up from $21.5 million, or 14 cents a share, a year earlier.

At Neiman Marcus, a private company, profit rose to $44.3 million for the fiscal second quarter ended Jan. 26, from $41.0 million a year earlier.

Maidenform Brands shares were up $1.96, or 16.3 percent, to $13.99 in afternoon New York Stock Exchange trading. Chico's FAS shares were off 14.2 percent, or $1.40, to $8.47, and Brown Shoe shares eased 8 cents, or 0.5 percent, to $14.97. Saks shares were up 1 cent to $15.50.