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Liz Claiborne Sees Worst For Margins Over

By Karen Talley Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES NEW YORK -(Dow Jones)- Liz Claiborne Inc. (LIZ) says the worst may be over in margin performance as it continues to move out marked-down merchandise and bring in new apparel that customers are willing to pay more for. "For us, we are at a period of true trough performance in margin and I'm speaking about gross margin and overall operating profit margin," Chief Executive Bill McComb said Wednesday, adding that better margins are "very gettable" for the women's apparel retailer. Improving margins can be an indication of company's performance in terms of the revenue it takes in for selling its products versus costs. Liz Claiborne, in part, is using tiered pricing to give merchandise broad appeal and respond to the way customers have changed, McComb said Wednesday at a conference sponsored by Goldman Sachs. "Today the woman wants to feel smart," McComb said. "She wants to feel she has outsmarted someone and that is the new moral justification for purchasing." Still, products have to carry appeal, and McComb said the redesign of the namesake Liz Claiborne brand has proved to be somewhat of a disappointment in department stores. The Isaac Mizrahi-designed line is lingering on shelves. Merchants have said it has too much emphasis on color and fashion, "stunning" feedback since the line has long been criticized as having gone stale, McComb said. Sales progress is better at lower-end department stores and at it own outlets, although at the latter there is still "a pile of excess inventory from the old line," McComb said. Goldman Sachs analyst Benjamin Rowbotham said continued patience by investors could pay off as Liz continues its turnaround efforts. The retailer lost $82.1 million, or 87 cents a share in its recently reported second quarter, its seventh consecutive quarterly loss. "While righting the ship will remain a challenge, we do see some light at the end of the tunnel which makes Liz's share a potentially attractive play," said Rowbotham. Improving fourth-quarter gross margins, aggressive cost-reduction efforts, better trends at Liz Claiborne outlet stores and easier same-store sales comparisons "all point to a potentially better 2010 outlook," he said. The comments came less than a week after it was reported that Liz Claiborne has hired Alvarez & Marsal Inc. McComb said Wednesday Alvarez & Marsal was brought in to assist the company for about five weeks, adding that the hiring wasn't announced in a formal Securities and Exchange Commission filing because the company has sufficient liquidity, and isn't concerned about its ability to meet its obligations. "We didn't issue an 8-K filing because as [Chief Financial Officer Andrew Warren] said we have more than sufficient liquidity and we are not concerned about our liquidity metrics," McComb said. "This is truly a five-week exercise to take a good look at what we're doing in [Warren's] group" for managing cash and receivables, McComb said. "If they've got any advice at the end of that, we will likely make any announcements around any ideas that we've learned from them and that will be that." Liz Claiborne shares closed up 10.4% at $4.55 on Wednesday. -By Karen Talley, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2196; karen.talley@dowjones.com

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