By  on July 31, 2008

Dallas merchants are optimistic about fall, thanks to strong response to early deliveries and brisk business in one of the hottest months of July on record, when temperatures have averaged 100 degrees.

“We’ve been shocked at the number of sweaters and coats we’ve sold,” said Brian Bolke, co-owner of Forty Five Ten luxury emporium, where spring business was up about 5 percent. “It’s real investment dressing. They want something they can live in and enjoy, and not only wear once.”

While nobody is exactly popping Champagne, the retail business here fared better than nationwide, according to merchants and analysts.

“For the past several months, our Texas stores have done well relative to store performance in other parts of the country,” said Ginger Reeder, vice president of Neiman Marcus Group, where overall comparable-store sales fell 2.4 percent in June.

She declined to elaborate, but industry sources said the downtown flagship is doing particularly well and business is holding at Neiman’s NorthPark Center store, which does $180 million in annual sales.

Supported by oil and gas wealth and a construction boom, the Dallas economy continues to grow, though at a slower rate than in the past few years, noted Terry Clower, associate director of the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas.

“We still are creating jobs and overall income growth in this area,” Clower noted. “This does not mean there are not some threats out there. We are the headquarters of AMR Corp., parent of American Airlines, and as they trim their workforce, certainly some of that will [affect us].”

As in other cities, foreclosures are up in Dallas — 18 percent in May compared with 48 percent nationwide — and people are feeling the pinch of inflation.

“We have serious shoppers who are still spending, but the people who were browsers are not browsing,” observed Connie Segal, owner of Elements contemporary to designer store in the affluent Park Cities neighborhood.

“Even some of our wealthy customers are more cautious. But there is still a lot of money out there, and a lot of people in our area are not in the mortgage crisis.”

July is up 25 percent, she said, though Elements’ spring business was off 10 to 15 percent this year against strong numbers in 2007, which she attributed to customer indifference to bulky styles as well as the economy.

Given macroeconomic pressures and election-year jitters, Segal and other buyers said they trimmed fall inventories 10 to 15 percent and were pickier, selecting versatile pieces that had value and longevity and special items worth a splurge.

“This is not the year necessarily that you will see growth,” said Crawford Brock, owner of Stanley Korshak luxury store and The Shak boutique. Brock slashed the spring inventory of women’s designer clothing 40 percent, which he considers an “overreaction,” given that the season’s sales fell only 9 percent. He made a 10 to 15 percent cutback in fall goods.

The stores have seen a little less traffic, Brock acknowledged, yet sales are up in shoes, cosmetics, home, men’s, jewelry and The Shak, which specializes in contemporary and young designer.

“We’re up in July,” Brock observed. “You still have to be on your best game, but you have these anomalies. We’re having a great reaction to early [fall] receipts. And The Shak is doing unbelievable. This month, it’s up 47 percent.”

NorthPark Center has had a consistently strong year, with sales up 7.7 percent through May, according to Christine Szalay, marketing director.

Dozens of stores have opened since the mall expanded in 2006, with Roberto Cavalli and Fresh on tap for fall.

“June sales are not in yet — but traffic remained up through the month, so I do not expect any changes,” Szalay asserted.

Business at the Galleria Dallas mall in north Dallas is picking up, said Angie Freed, senior marketing manager. “We’ve been fortunate to not suffer the same economic woes as the rest of the country,” she noted. “While we were flat for the first few months of the year, sales have been in positive territory the past few months.”

Just Cavalli, Via Montenapoleone, +IT, Lush and Adidas will open this summer and fall at the complex, which has 200 stores, a hotel and offices.

Jackie Stewart, who manages and is a partner in Highland Park Village and Preston Royal Shopping Center, said overall, the centers are “hanging in there really great.” Judith Ripka and Loro Piana will both open at the Village this fall.

“We have a clientele that is in oil and gas, and when the price goes up, that certainly doesn’t hurt our business,” Stewart said.

It’s been tougher at Mockingbird Station, a mixed-use center of primarily moderate and better-price retailers, including trendy independents plus Gap, Victoria’s Secret, Urban Outfitters, American Apparel, Ann Taylor Loft and others.

“Sales are down for the year, which is no different from other retail centers, due to the slowdown in the economy, rising gas prices and the fact that this is an election year,” said Pam Baker, general manager. “Retailers remain positive and understand that this is a repercussion of circumstances that are out of their control.”

The Station added 23,000 square feet of retail space in March, but the expansion is vacant except for a Sunglass Hut. In addition, Lululemon Athletica has signed a lease, a Station spokeswoman said.

LFT, a 30,000-square-foot fashion haven for women and men that opened 16 months ago, is slowly but surely building business downtown at the new Victory Park development, said Susie Calmes, creative director. Calmes, formerly director of Tootsies’ Dallas unit, brought her extensive retail experience to LFT this summer.

“We are a little bit ahead and staying right on track,” Calmes said. “In my experience and from talking to other retailers, we have not seen the drop-off in the women’s business that they have in other places. I don’t think Dallas has been hit as hard as the rest of the country.”

Calmes added that she expects LFT to retain its edge, noting she is picking up Jason Wu and Calvin Klein Collection and expanding the inventory of Diane von Furstenberg. She’s also adding bigger sizes — up to 12 — and looks with sleeves to fit a broader clientele to age 50.

Business has topped sales goals every month at V.O.D., said Jackie Bolin, co-owner with Liz Thompson. The hip fashion boutique opened last fall at Victory.

“Our customers seem to be in great spirits, and to be honest with you, we seem to be selling the more exclusive, special — and usually the most expensive — items first,” Bolin said. “Our numbers have been solid. This is Texas, after all.”�

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