San Francisco — Guess which merchandise contributes highest dollar volume to Christmas sales in most department stores: Toys? Giftware? Children's Clothing? Lingerie?
None of these - it's men's apparel.
And no longer just the traditional neckties, either. The sales for dad-brother-and-son run right across men's wearables: robes, sweaters, shirts, shoes, belts, ties, grooming accessories, jackets, outerwear, caps, scarfs, socks, cologne, even underwear.
How come these sell so well as gifts?
Well, surveys show most are picked up by women shoppers, using their Christmas gift lists. And holiday merchant analysts say they believe this must be the standard way the American male gets yearly additions to his wardrobe.
''We can show that our biggest selling lines at Christmas are men's apparel, '' said one West Coast merchandise manager. ''But the truth is, these aren't 'sold' by us. What happens is, they're bought - sort of right out from under us - by women apparently doing the family gift shopping. All we do is to buy our holiday lines in depth and then try to display them well. Budgeting for these menswear stocks isn't all that difficult, because the same type of goods sells well every year - new styles notwithstanding.''
A spot check of prominent department stores done for The Christian Science Monitor found that this holiday women shoppers would do well to pay attention to details like these when shopping for men:
Shirts. Most men's shirts now come only in combination sleeve lengths (32-33 ). One or two famous-name brands still make correct neck-size, sleeve-length garments (15-33). Combination lengths come with two cuff buttons, which makers say allow sleeves to fit either arm length.
The best way for a gift shopper to find out a wearer's preference is to measure a favorite shirt (center of back collar to tip of cuff). If the figure is 33 inches, that's his correct length size.
Some shirts on the market are European-cut. These are for the non-full figure; and as a gift for someone who is, they won't button across the front. Content material is important, too, in men's shirts. Eighty percent polyester can be ''hot,'' whereas more cotton content will offer a cooler-breathing shirt.
Joggers. Most jogging shoes come only in wide widths. If the gift is for a wearer of a men's 10B (narrow), he may not be happy with any old jogger - even if the salesman says all he has to do is lace it a little tighter.
Socks. Stocks of men's socks now come mostly in one-size stretch nylon. If he wears wool only or cotton (almost impossible to find), the buyer shouldn't buy nylon, no matter how radiant the colors seem. Shoppers need to know if the gift-getter likes calf-length or short-short - or argyles.
Slacks. Many rack slacks (dress and casual) come in waist and leg-lenth measurements. This avoids alterations (expensive now for men's garments), provided proper sizes can be found. It's like shirt-sleeve lengths, though: The manufacturers make combination pant-lengths (short 31-32). If the gift-getter wears a 29inch length, then the 31-32 is too long - even if he says he likes it on Christmas morning.
Slacks (like European-cut shirts) come in ''trim'' sizes. These are too tight for all but the slim male figure. Comfortable slacks are full-cut and usually so labeled.
Sweaters. Men's sweaters bought for outdoor wear should be close-knit as a shield from the wind. If he wears a pullover - as a favorite - rather than a cardigan, a good shopper should take the hint.
Jackets. These are usually sized like men's suits: 40, 42, 44, etc. Some now are labeled S, M, L, and XL, and have a tendency in some lines to be tight-cut. (Art Buchwald says the foreign garment manufacturers' average male model must be 4 feet, 4 inches tall and weigh about 114 pounds.)
Accessories. When in doubt about proper sizes, women shoppers invariably turn away from sized apparel - to handkerchiefs, something for the office desk, sporting goods, after-shave lotions - maybe even sometimes neckties, that once-easy way to gift shop for a man. But now, merchants say, even this idea needs shopper-watching, because there are a lot of stylish open-collar wearers who might have liked something else but would never say so.