By  on June 20, 2008

NEW YORK — In an effort to educate and inspire 150 members of its design and merchandising staff, Liz Claiborne Inc. held its annual "White Space" seminar at the Museum of Natural History here on Thursday.

As part of the event, the company offered a panel discussion titled "Retail's Moment of Redefinition" and called upon industry experts such as Linda Fargo, senior vice president, women's fashion office and store presentation at Bergdorf Goodman; Stefani Greenfield, co-founder of Scoop stores; Richard Hodos, retail real estate expert with clients including Michael Kors and Jonathan Adler; John Bartlett, creative director of his namesake men's wear brand and of the upcoming Claiborne by John Bartlett men's collection; Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, and Glenda Bailey, editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar. The panel was moderated by Tom Julian, brand and trend consultant.

"It's so important to have something irresistible, to have something that people feel like they have to have," Corlett said about enticing the consumer to buy in tough economic times. "We also need to find ways to make shopping trips more efficient as consumers are bunching their trips together."

Corlett pointed to the rise in gas prices, which is leading consumers to hit the Home Depot and the department store in one day's outing, rather than in multiple trips. She also noted the danger in this behavior becoming a habit, which consumers may not break when the economy recovers.

Greenfield said she doesn't feel like she has changed the way she does business, even in this tough economic time.

"We are always out to edit for our customer, to give them quality and value," she said. "Everyone who walks into my stores is looking for objects of desire. No one needs our stuff, they want our stuff. In a recession, that is no different. Even when you are feeling down, you want to look good to make yourself feel better."

Fargo agreed, "People look for pieces with longevity and they look for pieces with passion," she said. "They buy into the trends when the trends are exciting and especially in times like these there is room for that."Fargo also pointed to good service as key in retail. "It's about simple friendliness, like saying 'Hello' when a customer walks in, but you really shouldn't say 'Can I help you?' since that adds pressure and often gives them the opportunity to turn away," she said. "It's those simple friendly gestures that tell the customer 'This is a nice place,' and she will return."

Bartlett said he opened his 500-square-foot store in the West Village here in order to get closer to his customer and to learn about what he is looking for from him as a designer.

When the conversation turned to the growing trend in partnerships such as the Rogan/Target line, panelists all agreed they won't hurt the higher-end segment of their businesses if it's done with integrity.

"This is the modern way, it's how we live, we all shop high-low these days," Fargo said. "We buy our plates at Crate & Barrel, but we may also have an Hermès blanket. There's nothing wrong with that, so I think these partnerships create name recognition for a brand and that is not harmful."

Panelists all agreed about the growing importance of bringing the Internet and technology to retail — Corlett used the Los Angeles-based Fashionology store as an example, calling it the "Build-A-Bear for Fashion," as a "brilliant tween retail experience."

Panelists pointed to brands like Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue, Tory Burch, Apple, J. Crew and Lanvin as a select group of brands that will surely thrive in a recession.

"Fashion should be seen as entertainment, and the brands we see as leaders all provide a sort of entertainment to their customers," Bailey said. "Always remember you are in the entertainment industry."

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