By and and  on February 13, 2008

LAS VEGAS — Economic challenges compelled retail buyers and exhibitors at WWDMAGIC to hone strategies — from opting for safe merchandise to jumping on rising trends — to help ensure they lessen the impact of a downturn.

Concerns about sales were evident Tuesday when the four-day trade expo kicked off at the Las Vegas Convention Center. But anxiety was mixed with hope among retail buyers and vendors that conditions would improve partly because of the economic stimulus package approved by Congress, which President Bush has said he will sign.

"Once people get stable, it is going to be OK," said Orit Kohen, owner of Jet Rag, a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles where business has slowed.

Vendors said many retail buyers relied on proven styles rather than riskier merchandise. Buyers were eager to select items that didn't give their customers sticker shock and provided value.

"With the economic climate, our stores are not buying as deep; they are more thoughtful," said Kendra Miller, showroom manager for Jackie B, which showed contemporary brand Sugar Lips. "You can feel the tightening of the belt."

Libby Karcsh, who owns three-year-old seasonal boutique Haven in Sea Isle City, N.J., with her cousin, Rachael Morrison, avoided dresses above $150 at retail. "You have to make sure everyone is comfortable and that people are not walking away because you have $200 dresses," she said.

Rosalyn Lester, a buyer for Garrett's, a men's and women's clothing shop in Radford, Va., was willing to go as high as $1,000 at retail. "If it's truly exceptional and unusual, they'll pay more for it, but they want quality," Lester said of her customers.

Despite the tendency to stock up on tested styles when times are tough, Martin Rakovitch, president of Los Angeles-based footwear and handbag specialist Chinese Laundry, said department stores should keep broad assortments. Chinese Laundry is sold in department stores, such as Nordstrom and Macy's, and 3,000 specialty stores.

"Customers don't need to see all the same thing," Rakovitch said. "I want to see [retail buyers] sold out'' rather than buying excessive numbers of the same item.Responding to consumers' desire to "buy now and wear now," several vendors, including women's sportswear brand Eileen Fisher, displayed spring and summer collections for immediate shipments as well as fall lineups slated for September deliveries. They were targeting the likes of Lowell Epstein, owner of women's sportswear store Affordables in Charleston, S.C., who said he was looking for immediate delivery after "coming off a tentative fall."

Foreign buyers were a standout group that was having a field day because of the weak U.S. dollar. "It's awesome," said Jenni Manson, owner of a two-door streetwear chain called American Republic in Australia. She was eying Britain's Punkyfish, which offered a straight-leg jean with zippers and charms enhancing the back pockets for $33 at wholesale.

Foreign companies came to WWDMAGIC with the goal of breaking into the U.S. market. South Korea's Mill Fashion Group, which generates $30 million to $40 million in annual sales through six brands, brought its gray sheer silk frocks with crochet bordering the flutter sleeves and a tank dress made of recycled wool in contrasting black and charcoal stripes. Both styles wholesale for $28. "This is our chance [in the U.S.]," said Sunnie Myung, marketing director for Mill Fashion Group.

If U.S. buyers were cautious, they didn't completely shy away from venturing into new territory. Melissa Oliver, a buyer at action sports store Sitzmark Sports in Overland Park, Kan., recently picked up swimwear for women and girls, including Volcom and Reef. "It is a market that we are missing," she said.

Terrance Joshua, owner of OG's Fashion in Honolulu, looked for green brands to supplement merchandise at his two-year-old store, which is split evenly between men's and women's clothing.

Mike New, owner of Newport Dry Goods in Port Clinton, Ohio, was interested in environmentally friendly resources, as well, and scouted organic cotton sweaters at Pure Handknit. He said he was "concerned about the future," but was not cutting back on merchandise.

With retailers' interest in natural apparel mounting, companies continue to move in the green direction. Juniors manufacturer Trinity switched to organic cotton last year and has seen sales double since January 2007 even though prices of Trinity dresses have climbed 15 percent. "Once people realize it is a different kind of fabric, people are willing to pay," said owner Eddie Kim.The retail momentum of dresses doesn't appear to have ebbed. Short dresses with slender silhouettes appeared to be more popular than their longer counterparts, compared with past seasons.

"Everybody was so puffy and baby-doll last season, and everybody is going slimmer," said Jin Cha, designer for Los Angeles-based dress resource Glam. "If there is something puffy, [retail buyers] put thin belts with it."

Dress specialists, such as Voom by Joy Han, branched out despite the category's strength. Known for using soft, flowing silk charmeuse, Han adopted new fabrics such as nylon microfibers and brocade, which worked well for a coat with a tiered collar and cropped sleeves at $189 wholesale.

"Before, you could buy pieces that were more novelty and a onetime wear," said Jamie Garrott, a sales representative for Voom. "Now, people are looking for more classic pieces that you can always wear and keep for a long time."

Vendors offered value by mixing, such as jersey with embroidery, lace and ribbon at Free People and pointelle with full needle jersey at Esprit.

"The texture makes it look interesting," said Shannon Bouthillette, senior vice president of sales at New York-based Esprit. "It spices up your assortment while making it understandable and sellable."

Value was also a factor in denim and in accessories. At New York-based Free People, denim retailing for $68 sold the best. See Thru Soul, based in City of Industry, Calif., said the new sweet spot for jeans ranges between $65 and $80 at retail. But See Thru Soul is trying its hand with a more expensive line called STS Blue, which will launch this fall with as many as four styles, including two-tone corduroy and organic denim, and a $120 to $125 retail price point.

At Chinese Laundry, Rakovitch said that retailers were primarily viewing larger bags because their value for the price point was considered greater than small bags. "A small bag is $26 [at wholesale]. The large bag is $28," he said. "They might as well go with the larger bag."

— With contributions from Max Padilla

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