Many U.S. clothing retailers think the skirt may be the next dress. A strong seller since 2006, the dress has delighted retailers, but buyers at the Magic Marketplace apparel trade show this week wanted to be ready when the trend inevitably ends.

Some think the skirt may be next.

The skirt is such a conversation. All the stores are talking about it -- 'Will it hit, when will it hit?' said Krissy Meehan, head of wholesale sales for Urban Outfitters Inc's Free People line. 'Should we be buying it, should we not be buying it?' It's become a conversation.

Fittingly, the colorful Free People line now includes one skirt for spring.

The stakes are high in timing the eventual fading of the dress and Magic, where buyers place orders with apparel makers for the 2008 spring season, is a key place for decision-making.

Retailers must find the right balance between maximizing a trend's momentum now, while avoiding being ill-prepared when the next big thing finally emerges, sales representatives say.

Dresses have seen sales growth between 16 and 18 percent during the past six month period, said Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst with NPD Group. That compares with the women's apparel market average of 4.3 percent.

It's been exceptional, Cohen said of the trend's sales power.

So it's no surprise that dresses have been seen everywhere -- whether at Gap Inc's Old Navy chain, American Eagle Outfitters Inc, Target Corp, Macy's Inc or AnnTaylor Stores Corp.

Said Needham & Co.'s Christine Chen: Even at companies where sales have been soft, dresses have been strong.

And that should continue for a while longer, experts say.

Dresses will be good through next spring, said Cohen. And then for fall for next year, you'll see them migrate to something else.

But not everyone is convinced that skirts will be that next thing. Odds are it will be pants, Cohen said.

The cycle is natural and inevitable, said Liz Pierce, a retail analyst with Roth Capital Partners. The voluminous silhouettes that have captured fashion will likely morph into a more sophisticated look influenced by the tailored menswear industry, she predicted.

Women will just want something else, Pierce said, adding that a return to focus on the waist will be key.

The fickle fashion industry that caters to teens can turn on a dime and retailers have to be prepared, said Gayle Newman-Jarrett, director of women's merchandising for Volcom Inc's edgy surf-skate brand.

The junior customer can sometimes fluctuate quickly, Newman-Jarrett said, citing the influence of music and fashion magazines that can quickly seize on a trend and guarantee its success.

Everyone's waiting for the next category. Everyone's stocking skirts just to see what happens. Everyone's playing back-up, she said.

Volcom has five skirts in its spring line even though dresses are still on a roll for the action-sports brand.

Dresses in the U.S. are still doing very well, she said. We'll continue to ride it out as long as possible.

As for what's next, Newman-Jarrett said that in Australia, where the company goes to gauge emerging surf-apparel trends, there are signs that young women may be gravitating to shorts, rather than skirts.

Whether its pants, skirts or shorts in the wings, apparel makers and retailers say women tend to buy two tops for every bottom they purchase.

Average unit retail will probably go down because a dress is higher priced than a skirt or top; but if women are redoing their wardrobes they'll buy more than one skirt (and more tops) so units are likely to go up, said Chen.