By  on June 25, 2008

CHICAGO — Seeking to counter a sliding economy, retailers attending the Chicago Apparel Market this month were reexamining their business strategies — fine-tuning their buys, paying more attention to customers' choices and even downsizing.

Linda Mallers, owner of RaceLogix, an outdoor and activewear store in Evanston, Ill., said she plans to shrink.

"I probably wouldn't be in business without my Web site," said Mallers, who will close her 2,000-square-foot store and open a unit roughly half the size in nearby Winnetka.

Mallers said having a broader reach on the Internet proved invaluable, especially because of the region's long winter and colder-than-normal spring.

"No matter what the weather is here, it's sunny somewhere else," said Mallers, who estimated 80 percent of her sales are online.

She was among a small number of retailers at the three-day market that ended June 8 who reported retooling their businesses.

Mallers, who sells lines such as Lucky Brand, Prana, Horny Toad and XCVI, said she shopped the market for stretch T-shirts from Last Tango, chunky wool and cashmere sweaters from Shae Sweaters and herringbone jackets and boiled-wool capes from Luii.

"The environment is really tough," said Mallers, who is spreading out her deliveries and is buying closer to season.

Darla Stites, owner of What to Wear, with locations in Traverse City and Elk Rapids, Mich., also ordered immediate and fall pieces, including soft knit print dresses from Uncle Frank, embroidered jackets and T-shirts from Johnny Was and sweaters from Willow.

Stites said the economy has forced her to become more selective. Although she carries some more expensive lines, Stites has scaled back in that area.

"You just can't do the higher price point as much," she said. "I go with lines I feel safe with."

Stites said seeking out distinctive pieces becomes even more important.

"In these times, you have to find things that are unique," she said. "That's what keeps people coming back."

Dresses topped the order of Kandie Erickson, buyer for La-de-da, a 5,000-square-foot home decor, clothing and accessories store in Kansas City, Mo.In particular, she liked silk chiffon dresses in soft pastels and nudes from For Love & Liberty and feminine flowing baby-doll and colorful print dresses from Alberto Makali.

"They give you a little breathing room," she said of the forgiving Makali dresses. "We don't have to be as conscious about size."

Erickson also ordered cotton and silk blend, and cotton and cashmere blend sweaters from One Girl Who that came in lime green, burnt orange, black, gray, chocolate brown and other shades. Leatherock also produced belts with semiprecious stones that impressed Erickson.

She said she has seen some belt tightening among customers, some of whom prefer to buy investment pieces with lasting power versus of-the-moment trendy items.

"I see more people thinking about what they're buying," she said.

In general, Erickson said retailers at the market reported holding their own.

Sales representative Jeffrey Segal said buyers snapped up print tops from Alberto Makali and packable nonwrinkle plush and quilted nylon coats wholesaling for $110 to $225 from Micra Pac.

Sales rep Denny Burlin said basic jeans and brushed twill pants from Not Your Daughter's Jeans and novelty jackets including a black-and-white plaid rayon style from Insight proved strong sellers at the market.

"I feel business is better than anticipated," he said.

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