Fashion once went on sale at the most inconvenient times.
This I learned at age 10. That winter, every girl in the entire world --or my immediate Minneapolis neighborhood --rocked a fluffy, fake fur hat. Never mind that the topper looked as though a white rabbit had artfully arranged itself atop one's head. And promptly died.
It was fashion.
My mother, practical in money matters, suggested waiting for the hats to go on sale. They did! Glorious day! Half price! I remember the first time I wore mine to school. Fluffing the fake fur to frame my face, I felt very Doctor-Zhivago-tears-on-the-train romantic. Never mind that an orange school bus --and 27 noses pressed against its windows --awaited me. Strolling toward my ride I was, for a moment, tragically glamorous.
Then some kid asked, "Aren't you hot in that thing?"
In my fashion excitement, I'd failed to notice sudden seasonal changes sent temperatures soaring to 80 degrees. Fortunately, fake fur provides excellent sound insulation. I pretended I hadn't heard.
These days, fashions more often go on sale when consumers are ready to wear them. Sandals, sunglasses and summer dresses are marked down just as the weather warms up.
What's going on? For one thing, seasonal clothes are delivered to stores much earlier than they once were, as retailers race to be first with the latest trends. It's not unusual for department stores to get their first spring deliveries in early February. More spring merchandise arrives in the weeks that follow. By the time the actual season arrives, the earliest deliveries are sold or marked down.
This year, the economy added another wrinkle. Retailers, competing to coax dollars from consumers' tight fists, are holding sales earlier. Nordstrom bumped up its half-yearly sale for women and children by two weeks to start this week. Saks Fifth Avenue held its spring sale a week earlier than last year, with some designer and bridge lines moving out the door. Independent retailers have to pay attention to the big guns to compete.
"You have to monitor what the mood is and be on top of your game," says Mario Bisio, owner of Mario's in Portland and Seattle.
Although large retailers are reluctant to discuss early mark-downs, Bisio notes that it usually indicates stores are overstocked with inventory and not meeting projected sales.
"We don't respond exactly like (chain stores) do," Bisio said. "Our business is very client- driven. People want to be loyal to us. If that means making (a price) adjustment, then that's what we do."
That's good news for those with the money to shop.
"We're putting more merchandise on sale earlier than in the past," said Bill Halleran, general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in Portland. "For the customer, that means a better selection of sizes and styles."
Denise Grimes, manager of the Jeri Rice boutique in Portland, thinks slow sales this spring might have little to do with money.
"We had so much cold and dreariness," Grimes said. "That affected us more than the economy."
Customers simply aren't in the mood to buy designer linen when temperatures don't allow them to wear it. The recent warm weather finally brought out customers.
And they don't worry, said Grimes, whether a suede jacket is $2,400 or marked down to $1,900.
"I was driving listening to NPR today and they had economists saying we aren't in a recession after all," Grimes said. "I thought, 'Where were you numbskulls four months ago?' "
The Commerce Department reported last week that, excluding car sales, retail sales actually rose 0.5 percent in April. Recession or not, customers of such high-end boutiques don't exactly feel the pinch.
"Remember, when our customer tightens their belt, it's generally ostrich or alligator," said Burt Tansky, CEO and president of Neiman Marcus, addressing a conference in New York on how retailers and manufactures could adjust to the changing economy.
For the majority just struggling to get by, Tansky's remark sounds about as sensitive as "Let them eat cake." The only good news is that the slowed economy means early markdowns across the board.
And when stores such as Kohl's, Old Navy, Target and Wal-Mart cut prices, it's easy to find high style on a low budget.