By  on July 15, 2010

Men’s retailers are looking over their shoulders — and hope that ill winds aren’t gaining on them.

On the eve of New York market week, men’s merchants said business is stable, but far from spectacular. Sales have picked up from the depths of the recession last year, although customers — including luxury shoppers — are still holding back and looking for value, forcing retailers to adjust their buying strategies and tightly edit assortments.

The slow and difficult climb out of the economic downturn is shadowed — and sometimes overshadowed — by concerns about growth, deflation, falling consumer confidence, persistent high unemployment, government budget shortfalls, an uneven stock market and other factors.

“Maybe we should have done this when business was good,” said Dan Farrington, general merchandise manager of the Mitchells Family of Stores.

Men’s specialty stores will be in New York this week to attend trade shows — Agenda, Capsule, ENK New York and MRket — and shop showrooms. Lightweight sport coats, slim-fit suits and sport shirts to coordinate with denim are at the top of shopping lists.

“Things are certainly better,” said Ken Giddon, president of Rothmans, a New York City-based specialty store. “The fear factor is gone, but we’re not racing to the bank with all the money we’re making.”

David Rubenstein, owner of Rubensteins in New Orleans, was apprehensive. “I’m kind of concerned, I really don’t know how to project business,” he said.

Although his inventories are in good shape — even light in some areas — Rubenstein foresees fall getting off to a late start. Business for spring and summer has been good, however, and he expects to post a high-single-digit increase. Top sellers include seersucker, cotton-linen pants, unconstructed lightweight jackets and hybrid sport dress shirts. Sport coats are still solid and clothing sales are steady, he said.

Rubenstein will shop for holiday and early spring. “I’m optimistic, but I’m not going crazy,” he said. “I’m going to save some money to fill in during the year. The manufacturers have been supplying us in-season so we can meet our cash flow needs.” This includes not only basics, but fashion goods as well. Rubenstein pointed to shirt vendors such as TailorByrd and Robert Graham as brands that have “good in-season packages. That’s what I’m going to be looking for.”

He’s also seeking to fill demand for slim-fit suits such as those from Polo Black Label, Hugo Boss and Peerless. “Those have been good for me, and I expect that will continue.” Rubenstein is open to a range of price points — from $495 for a starter suit to $1,600 for the luxury customer seeking a more-modern silhouette.

Although the high-end customer has cut back on purchases, Rubenstein isn’t trading down. “The Zegna or Brioni guy is staying at the price point, just buying less.” But the customer who might have reached up to the $1,500-to-$1,800 suit two years ago is now shopping below $1,000, boosting sales of Jack Victor and others. “Price points are important,” he said. “The real special market has shrunk. We’re seeing sticker shock and the manufacturers are realizing that.”

Rubenstein anticipates that business will keep improving, but isn’t hopeful of a climb to the heady days before the downturn. “It’s a whole new world,” he said. “And the pendulum won’t swing back 100 percent.”

Farrington of Mitchells agreed that business is better, but he is realistic. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “We’re seeing some consistent recovery and we’re in a better position than we were last year.” Inventory levels and sales margins are holding up, “so we feel good. We’re seeing some pent-up demand.”

The recession prompted the stores to sharpen their merchandising, and customers are responding. This includes “great items at all price points,” Farrington said, such as Peter Millar polos at $80 or a Brunello Cucinelli piece at $800. “The assortment is more focused with tighter edits.”

At the New York market, Farrington said he will keep “a very open mind. We’re not afraid to pick up one thing from a brand if it’s something new. Our contemporary business is great and we have the right denim, so we’ll be looking for cool tops and accessories to mix in.” Some last-minute holiday items are also on his list.

“Things make sense again,and there are a lot of great items out there,” he said. “But there’s no one collection that knocks me over. I don’t really need another collection.”

Crawford Brock, owner of Stanley Korshak in Dallas, who is located in the nation’s fastest-growing metro region with an 8.1 percent unemployment rate compared with the 9.5 percent national average, said: “Our spring — March, April and May — was pretty good. Men’s was up in the strong double digits. In fact, year-to-date, men’s is up 19 percent.”

Brock said men’s had been a sales leader for the last five years, with gains of more than 20 percent annually. Sales dipped to flat in 2007. “We watched it erode…but we said that when men’s comes back, it’s going to mean the end of the recession,” he said. “Well, it’s back and it’s strong and we’re cautiously optimistic.”

At Korshak, the high-end client has returned, and he’s spending, Brock said. “I have to do a double take and rub my eyes,” he said. “It’s hard to believe.” The men’s assortment opens with Zegna and tops out with Kiton, which is still the store’s number-one line. Isaia also has “continued upside,” Brock said. As a result, he will work to grow those brands, but will also shop the New York market for “new players” in knitwear and sport shirts. “Newness works,” he said.

Brock said he’s “feeling bullish” about men’s, anticipating a 15 percent increase in the fall, and added staff recently to help grow the business. “We’re tired of being hunkered down,” he said. “We’re going to go out and make it happen.”

At Denver’s Andrisen Morton men’s store, sales are up 8 percent this year, but co-owner Craig Andrisen characterized the gain as just “OK,” since it’s on top of a very low base. “But people are feeling better,” he said. “Luxury is still important, they’re just not buying as much.”

Andrisen brought in lower-priced goods to lure customers during the recession, but the strategy didn’t work. “It didn’t perform as well as we’d hoped,” he said. “We’re known for luxury and that’s what people are looking for.”

A case in point: the store’s best-selling sport shirt is from Zegna and retails for $330. Andrisen Morton is doing well with sport coats and is running low on sport shirts. The suit business, however, has struggled, and even made-to-measure has suffered. “We need to reengineer that,” he said. “It’s the future.” Other top performers include Cucinelli, Isaia and Zegna.

A key change is that luxury customers are looking for value, Andrisen said. “If they need itand it’s luxury, they’ll buy it. But instead of three cashmere sweaters, they’ll buy one, and it has to be the best.” To appeal to this new sensibility, the store will run promotions this fall such as a free shirt and tie with the purchase of a made-to-measure suit. “Our promotions are less and our inventories are in line, but we still have to offer some incentives,” he said.

Andrisen said he will keep a rein on his open-to-buy in New York. “Our budgets are so tight there’s not much left once we place orders with the five big horses, but we need to save a little money for [research and development] and testing.”

Giddon of Rothmans said business is still “challenging, but it’s making us keep our eye on the ball. We’re not desperate, but we’re not in a big growth mode either.”

Independent retailers need to “look for creative solutions” in order to survive and prosper, he said. About one year ago, Giddon joined forces with Lubin’s, a boys’ and young men’s store in Westchester County, N.Y., bringing that business into his Scarsdale, N.Y. location. “Lubin’s is trending up 50 to 60 percent,” he said. “It’s worked really well. I can see us doing more of that.”

At Rothmans, “fun sportswear is still selling,” along with Thomas Dean shirts, Hugo Boss and Peerless suits, Giddon said. “So we’re looking for things to complement these. And we’re willing to look at new lines that fit in with our mix.”

Giddon said he will be “buying aggressively” at the market. “We make our money by selling product. We’re not scared.” He will shop mainly for sportswear and talk with upper-end tailored clothing companies “to see how they’re reacting to a shrinking market. The over-$1,000 suit market is tough, and the higher-end guys have to make sure they don’t have their heads in the sand. They have to see the macro environment. The magic price point today is $895.”

David Levy of Levy’s in Nashville said his business is “decent,” with strength in clothing and sportswear. The majority of sales have been “classification driven,” and customers are responding to “fun items. So that’s what we’ll be looking for in New York — fun, lighter-weight items, particularly in sport coats.” He expects to shop primarily for clothing and collections in New York and to start looking at sportswear, finishing his final orders at the Las Vegas shows in August.

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