Ann Taylor is ready to play

Ann Taylor pushes clothes with confidence -- sleek, affordable basics for career women -- but its customers seem to have lost some confidence in them. The company posted a 22.5% sales decline today -- its fourth consecutive quarter loss.

The bleeding isn't much of a surprise. In fact, it's one of the easier recession setback stories to follow.

Sales at a national chain specializing in board-meeting blazers and client-lunch frocks should plummet when unemployment rises. Its female fans who have lost their jobs now have two wardrobe divisions: sweatpants, and dressy sweatpants (I speak from experience).
And its female fans still clinging to a payroll are likely shopping very, very cautiously -- if they allow themselves just the rare splurge, they're not likely to spend it on a pragmatic herringbone pant.

But Ann Taylor, exuding the shrewd business sense of its target client, is way ahead of itself this one. The fat September issues of fashion magazines that thwacked onto newsstands last week have a bold message from the store inside.

In Marie Claire, it's on the very first pages: "The New Ann... we're tired of being all work, no play. We're ready to change into something more beautiful." The designs that accompany the declaration are soft, colorful and lusher than the company's typical fare.

There's one catch: they're also pricier. The most decidedly "play" item in the spread -- a strapless tiered dress in plum satin -- runs $240. That's $65 more than this cocktail-ready style from the summer collection.

So will the store's play for that aforementioned splurge pan out? We'll have to wait and see -- I'll be keeping an eye out for that little plum number at fall weddings.

And speaking of weddings, the company would be wise to lavish some creative attention on its selection of bridesmaids' dresses. Those styles are modern, fashionable, and often priced at up to $100 less than J.Crew's comparable gowns.

A few more silhouettes, a dozen more colors, and Ann Taylor could dominate the ready-to-wear attendant game. What could be more beautiful than that?

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