By  on August 13, 2008

NEW YORK — Small vendors are rethinking their inventory and orders policies, as boutique owners wait longer to place orders and more carefully scrutinize each purchase.

Niche better-priced manufacturers at Moda Manhattan and FAME last week reported they are waiting to cut product until orders have been placed, and that orders are down 20 to 25 percent from last year.

The mood among exhibitors at the Jacob K. Javits Center shows here on Aug. 3 to 5 was tempered. On one hand, exhibitors said traffic was light, and that retailers were waiting longer to order and then ordering less and more carefully. But vendors also boasted about having success with fall and holiday special novelty items. Jackets, dresses and knits in bold colors or prints did particularly well.

Boutique retailers reported business to be better than the earnings reports for the major department stores, but they too are changing their buying strategies and holding or cutting their open-to-buys.

Cynthia Rusk, buyer for the special occasion boutique Helen Ainson in Darien, Conn., was shopping for holiday and scouting for color at the shows. She said business has been good, which she attributed to the store’s focus on special events as well as customer service. Helen Ainson’s open-to-buys held flat.

“Our buying pattern is a little different — we’re being very mindful of the budget, keeping our orders a little closer to what’s been working, and our timing has shifted a little later,” Rusk said. “We’re being very discerning when we shop, and making sure we are buying the right jewelry and accessories to go with each dress, and really thinking about what our customers want.”

Although business is up for the year at Betsy Fisher, an apparel boutique in Washington, owner Betsy Fisher said she was being more cautious and had lowered her open-to-buy by about 10 percent. While shopping the trade shows over the weekend, Fisher was particularly scouting versatile, tailored dresses, mostly for holiday.

“I was really looking for items,” said Fisher. “These little shows are such a gut buy — the things Ifind irresistible that I know my customer will too.”

C.C. Couture, a New York-based better line showing at Moda, did well with its key items, which wholesale from $50 to $120, like coats and dresses in bright jewel tones with novelty details — all for fall and holiday. “Not one person asked me for spring,” said Linda Weitzman, director of marketing and sales for C.C. Couture.

Weitzman said the company has cut back its inventory by about 20 percent as orders have slowed down this year.

“But what’s really tough is collecting money now,” she added. “Retailers’ credit lines are cut and the credit cards are maxed out. We are trying to help them with extra time because stores are having a really tough time.”

A cut-to-order business that turns product in six weeks, New York-based better line Zsa Zsa has cut 25 percent less this year as retailers order more conservatively.

“For this price point, I don’t think orders are as affected as much as at lower price points, but nothing is immune,” said designer Zsa Zsa. “At this show, people are looking for the great items that they lack for fall.”

Zsa Zsa did well with novelty jackets, which wholesale from $95 to $130, such as an embossed velvet taffeta jacket with an ruffled neck.

After three decades in the business, New York knit designer Michael Simon has shifted production to cut its knits after orders are made and has reduced inventory of popular styles by 20 to 25 percent this year. At Moda, buyer favorites from the line of novelty sweaters, which wholesale for $44 to $88, included trapeze vests in bright colors.

“The secret to doing business these days is great customer service,” said director of sales Gary Margulies. “Buyers are looking harder and trying things on more often.”

Bask, a New York-based better-priced knit company, reported business up 200 percent. Wholesaling for an average of $50, Bask’s cardigans, trapeze vests and swing coats with shorter sleeves all did well, particularly in bulkier textures. “We’re item sweaters, which are an impulse buy,” said Bask president Jeff Scher. “We offer a product that is affordable and diversified, and it’s doing well.”

Next door at FAME, Ryu, a junior line in Los Angeles that launched in January, also found success. Sales rep Sylvia Chun said the strength of orders for the fashion-forward collection, which wholesales from $15 to $37, surprised the new business. “This is our first time here, and we are overwhelmed by the response to our line,” Chun said.

Not everyone was so upbeat, though. Baltimore-based better line Tribe, which wholesales from $40 to $50, found business slow at FAME.

“There are less buyers than normal, and the buyers are writing less than they normally do,” said Robert Gruber, who owns Tribe’s parent company, A People United. “We are cutting to order, which is problematic when people are buying later. We have to differentiate our product more from what people can buy much cheaper. I’ve had several customers tell me they are really hurting, depressingly so, people I like.”

Exhibitor attendance at both Moda and FAME held steady compared with last August’s attendance, with about 400 vendors at Moda and 700 at FAME, according to Business Journals Inc., which owns both trade shows. Buyer attendance grew 3 percent.

While doing its customary 10,000-plus calls to retailers in the weeks leading up to the shows, Business Journals found that more stores had gone out of business than it has ever seen in such calls before, according to the company, which could not provide numbers.

“Coming into the show there was definitely a level of concern because the regional shows weren’t doing well,” said Sharon Enright, general manager for Business Journals. “But we came out flat with last year and right on target. We’re very happy, given the environment.”

Business Journals maintained the entrance costs for the show, but invested about 10 percent more to promote it, including publicizing the show dates through August 2009.

“We’re announcing our dates because we understand that for vendors and retailers to be cost-effective, they need to be able to plan their schedules and book their flights and hotels in advance,” Enright said.

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