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Frigid temps give outerwear stores reason to cheer

Chicago Tribune

By: Lauren Zumbach

Most Chicagoans are cursing this week’s bone-chilling temperatures. But for local purveyors of parkas and boots, the frosty weather is reason to cheer.

Last year, retailers blamed unseasonably warm temperatures for lackluster holiday sales and a glut of excess winter apparel that had to be sold at a discount.

“We were swimming in inventory, as was the entire industry,” said Rudi Mayer, general manager of Arlington Heights-based Erewhon Mountain Outfitters.

It was one of Erewhon’s worst years in the last 20, he said, and until two weeks ago, this year was shaping up to be even worse.

But after last week’s plunging temperatures and snowfall, this winter is shaping up to be a much merrier one for outerwear sales.

During the mild fall, Uncle Dan’s Outfitters owner Brent Weiss and his team had resigned themselves to another winterless year. Kids’ coats — normally popular during August and September — hung unsold on the racks.

Then came the third weekend in November, when temperatures dropped from the 70s to the 30s, accompanied by gusting winds.

“We saw parents running in Nov. 19, coming in with kids with no coats,” Weiss said.

After a brief warm spell, freezing temperatures and snow returned last week. So did customers.

“As soon as people see snow, they start thinking the local (ski hills) are open,” said Viking Ski Shop employee Chris Stollmayer. Non-skiers also have been coming to buy heavy-duty gloves and long underwear, she said.

“I’m fully aware there are way better sales in the summer, but you’re just not thinking about it then,” said Erin Fisher, 25, of the Lincoln Park neighborhood, as she tried on a puffy red parka with a fur-lined hood at The North Face’s Michigan Avenue store Wednesday.

U.S. winter apparel sales were down an estimated $572 million last November and December compared with 2014, said Kelly Carroll, director of client services at Planalytics, which analyzes the weather’s impact on business. But those sales are expected to be up $350 million during the first three weeks of December this year, she said.

Customers tend to buy winter apparel based on the prior season, stocking up early after a particularly frigid year and holding back after temperate ones like last year, retailers said.

This week’s average temperature in Chicago is 31 degrees lower than during the same week last year, the biggest drop in 121 years, said Bill Kirk, CEO of Weather Trends International, which advises businesses affected by weather.

That could boost winter apparel sales by more than 62 percent over this week last year and push growth in sales of goods like portable heaters and electric blankets even higher, according to Kirk.

Mayer isn’t sure Erewhon will make up for slow October and November sales. But December likely will meet or exceed expectations and January and February sales should be strong if the cold and snow remain, he said.

Grim weather isn’t an unqualified cause for celebration.

A retailer’s ideal December forecast would be cold but not dangerously cold, with enough snow to warrant boots but not enough to make roads slick or clog parking lots, Carroll said.

“As long as customers can get inside (stores), no one is going to complain about a few flakes falling,” she said.

And if winter stays too cold for too long, customers might not be in the mood for spring apparel when retailers start swapping sweaters for short sleeves in February.

At outdoor retailer Columbia’s Michigan Avenue store, Todd Beidler, 48, an ice fishing enthusiast from Park Ridge, said he usually waits for end-of-season sales to buy outerwear.

That might be tougher this year, Kirk said. If colder temperatures drive more sales now, there won’t be as much unsold apparel to discount in the spring, especially if retailers that slashed winter apparel orders have trouble keeping up with demand.

Normally, it’s extremely difficult for stores to reorder sold-out sizes and styles midseason. But after getting burned last year, retailers were even more conservative with their initial orders than vendors expected, so some have been able to help retailers restock, Mayer said. He estimates Erewhon cut orders for this season by about 30 percent.

At Uncle Dan’s, Weiss said he has already reordered a new type of boot with soles designed to keep a firm grip on icy sidewalks three times.

“I want a pair, but I don’t want to take them off the shelves,” he said.

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