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Ah, but Christmas 1999 was so easy for retailers! Cover your bases with a couple of key product categories, sit back and watch the merchandise fly out the door.

"If you had a few fleece vests and some cargo pants, you were going to have a good season,"

Robertson Stephens


Janet Kloppenburg

said Wednesday at her bank's consumer confab in New York. Not so this year, Kloppenburg said in her holiday outlook presentation to investors.

Now we're all sick of looking alike, she said, and far more interested in choosing individual items. We want that specific denim jacket we saw in that particular shop window, not just any old fleece vest, and we want it at a good price, too, because with the


where it is, we're less willing to spend big. And this all assumes we want clothing at all; wireless devices and DVD players are increasingly likely to replace apparel on holiday wish lists, she said.

And wait, it gets worse. Because retailers did well last year, they face tough same-store sales (sales at stores open at least a year) comparisons this year.

For the fourth quarter, Kloppenburg is forecasting 17% earnings growth for the retailers she covers, following a 41.5% jump in 1999. But she concedes that estimate might be optimistic. The retailers she thinks are going to do well will have, besides good merchandise, lower prices on key items and distinctive marketing campaigns. That's not the easiest trifecta to pull off.

But of course, all analysts have their lists of favorites. Topping Kloppenburg's is

Abercrombie & Fitch


, whose rebound continues to please Wall Street. (


wrote about the prospects of a turnaround at ANF back in July.)

She also likes



, which stumbled last year but this year is focusing on gift items such as sweaters and accessories. And



, whose same-store sales have been the envy of the retail industry, will likely continue that strength into the holidays, she says.

She likes



for the strength of its




divisions, plus the improvement at the Limited stores. (


has written about Limited


In the teen category, Kloppenburg favors fast-growing

Hot Topic


-- which


covered earlier Wednesday -- and

Charlotte Russe


, which also has shown its agility at staying in touch with the


set's favorite trends.

Kenneth Cole


is going like gangbusters with its leather skirts and outerwear. Meantime, who wouldn't like



shares as a good holiday bet when unemployment is 3.9%? (Kloppenburg rates all these stocks a buy, and Robbie Stephens has done underwriting for Charlotte Russe.)

Absent from that list was the buy-rated



, still struggling after a miserable summer, particularly at its

Old Navy

chain -- which is, not so coincidentally, the poster child for polar fleece and cargo pants.