LAS VEGAS — Citing the slowed housing market and rising economic pressures on consumers, retailers and manufacturers at WWDMAGIC said Monday that they were adjusting strategies while searching for items that would strike an emotional chord with customers.

About 120,000 people from 80 countries scoured booths at the start of the four-day run of the MAGIC Marketplace trade extravaganza at the Las Vegas Convention Center, seeking merchandise that could be delivered immediately as well as for spring. Diversification and low prices were high on the agenda.

Andrew Hong, owner of specialty shop Four Square in Stockton, Calif., said the housing woes unevenly affected his customer base. Younger consumers without mortgage payments continued to spend, even as their parents held onto their dollars.

Overall business "is slow...the younger people have part-time jobs and a little cash," Hong said, as he looked for denim from junior brands like Makers of True Originals to satiate his teenage customers.

To cope with financial volatility, several stores augmented their strategies. In Buckeye, Ariz., for example, Ron Woods, general manager of a golf apparel store called Raven Verrado, said he hoped to boost business with the introduction of spa and resort gear. "Folks in our market are looking for casual, comfortable stuff to wear," he said, while eyeing organic cotton yoga clothes at Shiva Shakti's booth.

Fran Thompson, director of retail at ChampionsGate Golf Club in ChampionsGate, Fla., supplemented her golf-heavy assortment with outerwear such as jackets from Berek. She pointed out that the flashier the products, the more inclined European tourists would be to open their wallets. She was also benefiting from the excess inventory of outerwear vendors. "You get a better price," she said.

Even celebrity-endorsed lines weren't immune to pricing pressure. For holiday, Jessica Simpson's collection of handbags cut the top retail price to $108 from about $300 in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience that already buys the actress' line of shoes priced from $65 to $125. "Under $100, Middle America can afford the bag," said Larry Shriber, West Coast sales director for Jessica Simpson Handbags.

Price, style and salability were key to Dian Sousa, buyer for Shark's Grin, a shop specializing in beachwear and casual clothing in Morro Bay, Calif. Another increasingly important criterion was whether the product had a visceral impact on shoppers. "People have to want it," she said.Indeed, in front of the booth for Small Axe Clothing, Syreeta Scott squealed upon seeing a purple formfitting frock that evoked the Forties with its wide collar, flared skirt and dramatic pockets trimmed in black-and-white checks.

"I'm getting emotional," said Scott, who plans to start selling apparel at her salon called Duafe in Philadelphia.

Colette McGuire, who started Small Axe in Tarzana, Calif., with her sister, Natalie, hoped a similar gut reaction from other buyers will help her start-up, which launched 19 styles of vintage-inspired looks made entirely of eco-friendly fabrics such as hemp and soy at WWDMAGIC. Trying to hit a first-year sales target of $1 million with wholesale prices running from $13 for a bandana to $170 for a tailored jacket, Colette McGuire acknowledged that Small Axe's prices were rather lofty. "But in the long run, it's better," she said. "People want to spend money on clothes and have them last and not go out of style."

As in previous seasons, dresses were pervasive. Advanstar Communications Inc., which runs WWDMAGIC, said the number of companies offering dresses increased 27 percent since February 2006. Los Angeles' Hot Kiss shortened the hems of its minidresses by four inches, BCBG Max Azria Group-owned Max and Cleo opted for a hem that fell below the knee and Los Angeles-based Sweetees stood out with a chevron pattern updated in lime green, fluorescent yellow and fuchsia.

However, dresses didn't reign everywhere. Michelle Thelen, owner of jeans store Bella Blu Boutique in Lansing, Mich., said healthy denim sales enabled her to double her retail square footage in July.

"Business for us is good," Thelen said, noting that she was on the hunt for wide-leg trousers, dark washes and boot-cut jeans. "Most people assume people don't spend their money there [in Michigan] and also because the automotive state has been hit hard, but people here love to buy two or three pairs of jeans."

In women's sportswear targeting customers over 30, denim took a backseat to shorts that were paired with feminine tunic tops in batik and damask prints. Green was a key color along with yellow, eggplant and brown.

"Prints are still big," said Celeste DeSimone, a Seattle-based buyer for Macy's Northwest.Neutral hues such as beige also offset the popularity of natural fiber and eco-friendly fiber such as organic cotton and bamboo. Carryovers from previous seasons such as animal prints, metallics and nautical stripes remained in abundance.

"Gold is hot in the market right now," said Cathy Zahn, manager of women's shop Barbie K. in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
- WWD Staff

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