NEW YORK -- Every Memorial Day weekend, Christine Cornell purchases several bikinis for the summer. But this year has been different. Cornell, who spent much of a cool, wet spring in dark fall clothes and rain gear, hasn't been in a beachwear mood.
And even with the weather improving this week, the Manhattan resident said she'll only buy one suit for now.
"I haven't been in a rush," Cornell said. "My shorts are still in the bottom of my drawer."
Swimwear retailers are hurting because of consumers like Cornell. Peter Rubin, president of the Swimwear Manufacturers' Association, believes it may be too late for merchants to recapture sales lost to the cold and rain, even through deep discounting.
"The later the season the greater the temptation for consumers to make do with the suit they bought last year," said Rubin, who is also president of A&H Sportswear, which produces swimwear under the Mainstream label.
Rubin estimated that stores are running on average 20 percent to 25 percent behind the number of swimsuits sold a year ago.
Susan Petrie, a Manhattan resident who usually buys a new suit around Memorial Day weekend, said she probably won't buy one this year because she feels "summer is half-way over."
That kind of attitude has prompted some stores, including Diane's Swimwear in Torrance, Calif., to cancel orders to help preserve profits. Industry analysts believe more stores will follow as they head into July, the most crucial selling period.
"(Business) is not what it could have been," said Diane Biggs, owner of Diane's Swimwear, which operates 13 stores in Southern California.
Swimsuits tend to be an impulse item; consumers buy them when they need them, and don't plan their purchases ahead of time.
"Swimsuits are as sensitive to weather as umbrellas and rainwear," said Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst at NPD Inc., a market research company based in Port Washington, N.Y.
In fact, higher-than-normal temperatures in early May in the Minneapolis area prompted Alexis Walsko to buy a suit a month earlier than usual. "It's so warm and perfect," she said.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the country had cool and wet weather, including the Los Angeles and Miami areas, and the East was hardest hit.
Virginia, as well as North and South Carolina, had their wettest spring since the National Climatic Data Center started keeping records in 1895. In New York City, it rained 16 days out of 31 in May.
Alabama, Maryland North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia have all had their second- or third-rainiest Mays on record.
So far in June, Washington, D.C. has had 7.3 inches of rain, 4.9 inches above normal, while Baltimore has had 6.9 inches of rain, 4.3 inches above average.
Paula Correri, a market specialist for New York-based The Doneger Group, which consults with store buyers on what to buy, said swimsuit sales have been down double digits in the Northeast.
The drought in the West, including Arizona and Nevada, has had little effect on swimwear sales, Correri said, noting that sales have been sluggish there as well. Correri noted that shoppers are used to such heat - it's the overall economy that has hurt sales.
The disappointing season is another blow to the swimwear industry, which has seen business decline over the past few years because of a combination of price deflation and decrease in tourist travel due to the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Stores were hoping for a pickup in sales for this year's resort season, which runs from late November through February, but the SARS virus curbed holiday travel.
Swimsuit sales at retail reached $3.1 billion for the year ended April 31, down 5 percent from a year ago, NPD reported.
For some stores and designers, discounting isn't the answer to getting customers to buy.
Mark Sidle, president of Swim 'N' Sport Inc., a 29-store chain based in Miami, has held off on steep markdowns. Sidle believes consumers will only buy when the sun comes out. But he said there has been some pickup this week, even with rainy weather continuing.
Allison Jones, a designer and president for a New York-based swimwear start-up, Purplestarfish, ran several sample sale parties this spring in her Manhattan apartment to help customers get in a beachy mood. She even decorated her apartment with fake palm trees. She sold several hundred suits, but said her store accounts are doing just "OK."
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