By  on January 15, 2009

To cope with the austerity sweeping through the economy, Dallas retailers are focusing this spring on lean inventories that pack a colorful and novel punch.

Merchants are banking on customer response to superb service and intimate events like luncheons and trunk shows.

“The whole ‘less is more’ [attitude] will prevail,” observed Barbara Kille, owner of Turtletique, a bridge store in business 40 years. “It feels better to be conservative.”

Besides slashing inventory 10 percent or more, merchants are shaving advertising, scaling back events and using e-mail and Web sites as inexpensive tools to lure shoppers.

They are trying to avoid the fate of local specialty stores that liquidated last year, including Walker Row, LFT, Crimson in the City, Counter Culture, Mary Nash, Barry Bricken and Harold’s, the 60-year-old classics chain that had grown to 43 stores in 18 states.

“We are working three scenarios — bad, worse and terrible — and waiting until we get out of the sale period later this month to watch regular price selling,” said Crawford Brock, owner of Stanley Korshak and The Shak. “We cut [our budgets] to ‘terrible,’ from overhead to orders, we hunkered down and will watch it. We are anticipating the worst and hoping it will be better.”

Caught between tight budgets and reluctant consumers, retailers are reevaluating the market for looks that are unique, fresh and versatile.

“Moving forward, we are buying more conservatively,” said Karen Katz, president and chief executive of Neiman Marcus, which, like many other retailers, suffered double-digit sales declines last fall as the economy sank. “We are very interested in collections that have a quality-luxury attitude, whether it is Oscar [de la Renta] or Akris — clothes that women can invest in and wear for a number of seasons.”

Key spring trends at Neiman’s are pink, one-shoulder styles, bold jewelry, graphic prints and statement shoes.

“Customers responded positively to the resort collections from Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, Gucci and Roberto Cavalli,” Katz said. “Updated suiting with novelty details and body-conscious dresses in floral and graphic prints have been strong. Shirting and jackets from Elizabeth and James and sequins from Phillip Lim have been popular with contemporary customers. The skinny bottom continues to be an important trend in contemporary, as well.”

Elaine Turner, a Houston accessories designer who opened namesake stores last fall there and in Dallas, is developing more styles to retail under $200. Besides her handbags, small leather goods and shoes, Turner’s stores offer complementary fashions, including colorful Tibi tunics and Gerard Yosca jewelry.

“You have to give product the consumer responds to emotionally and has a lot of value, a great retail experience and not just throw bags on a shelf,” Turner stressed. “She will be looking for something she doesn’t feel guilty about, an accent to what she already has. A feel-good experience — that is what is selling.”

Best-selling bright leather clutches are $150 to $175, with shoppers less interested in $650 city totes, she said.

Turtletique, catering to professional women with labels like Lafayette 148 and Yansi Fugel, picked up Marc Cain, a narrowly distributed German sportswear collection at gold-range prices — a notch above bridge — as a point of difference, noted Kille.

“A lot of retailers are cutting back on markets, but one of my strategies is to hit more markets, find out what’s going on, and to buy less, and closer and very carefully,” she said. “We are focused on novelty and adding things that have a lot of value with the same level of service — and hopefully more.”

Kille and other buyers were enthusiastic about the bright spring palette of coral, pink, blues and greens. Color has always been popular in Dallas, but this year, retailers hope it will bring a boost to spirits.

“We were really attracted to color this season,” said Brian Bolke, owner of Forty Five Ten, with forward designers like Martin Margiela and Yohji Yamamoto. “It seemed happy. We bought a lot of coral, a universal color that women look good in and makes them happy, and a fair amount of blue.”

The boutique’s well-heeled clients show interest in everyday clothing and less in social occasion, though they will buy special dresses for big events like weddings.

“It’s a funny time,” Bolke reflected. “People are ready for pretty and clean and not overly embellished, things they can wear year-round and layer. They have bought a lot of special clothes over the past two or three years they haven’t really worn. They don’t have to run out and buy something this season.”

Rich Hippie, concentrating on forward fashions with narrow distribution, is stocking up on novel casual clothing as well as pricey python handbags by Jane August and precious jewelry by Nam Cho, Laura M and Arman. It also preparing a Web site to do business online.

“For spring, we have the mentality that if a woman can buy 10 T-shirts for $1,000 she has a whole new wardrobe,” explained co-owner Nikki Solomon. “Our feeling is to keep it simple, easy, fun and fresh with a lot of [labels] and new vendors.”

Alana Unterberg, owner of Merge, closed her three-year-old unit in suburban Plano last fall to concentrate on a year-old contemporary store for men, women and kids at Preston Royal Shopping Center.

“Plano doesn’t spend as much on clothing,” Unterberg noted. “In Dallas, they are spending — knock on wood. It’s dresses and pants and more fashion than jeans. We are blowing out Elizabeth and James, Rory Beca and Mint by Jodi Arnold…and the kids business is unbelievable.”�

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