By  on April 14, 1994

SAN FRANCISCO -- Retailers played it safe at the Fashion Center's fall I market here this week. They were buying, but for many the focus was only on immediate goods, as they sought summer merchandise in breezy fabrics.

Many buyers said the action in their stores reflected a slow economic recovery. Still, they remained cautious, sticking to proven items and keeping a firm hand on their open-to-buys. Shorts, long and short skirts, T-shirts, palazzo pants and vests continued to top shopping lists.

The four-day market ended Tuesday, with Fashion Center management rating attendance flat with a year ago -- an improvement after the drops in traffic that had marked some recent markets.

Reflecting a common attitude among retailers, Pamela Griffin, owner of Folkways Imports, two women's boutiques in Eugene, Ore., said, "Business picked up for spring. We feel positive, but we are buying cautiously. Our open-to-buy is down 10 percent. That way, we can save money for immediates in June."

At this market, she was also shopping for immediate deliveries in popular styles, including palazzo pants, long vests and soft jackets in natural fibers. As for colors, Griffin liked rich neutrals as well as charcoal and steel gray.

"Business is picking up because I am lowering my prices," said Mary Francis, buyer for Martha's Vogue, a boutique here. She shopped for casual career separates, including long and short skirts, as well as cocktail dresses, and stayed within the $40 to $60 wholesale range.

Eloise Telfer and Jeanne Spitler, owners of Clothes Garden, a boutique in Capitola, Calif., were ordering sure bets, too, including casual sportswear by Russ Berens and Carol Anderson and sweaters by Chava.

Shopping price points of $10 to $70 wholesale, the two liked long and short skirts, wide-leg pants, leggings and loose tunics in natural fibers.

"Business has been slow, but it's picking up," Spitler said. "We depend on Silicon Valley as a customer base, and it is on shaky ground. A lot of companies are moving out of there."

Their open-to-buy was down at least 20 percent, she said. "We have to do much more focused buying these days."Cookie Goldring, owner of Rodders, a Fresno, Calif., boutique, said she was in search of off-price merchandise for immediate delivery.

"It's hot in Fresno," she said. "I'm not ready for fall. I'm not even going to bring sweaters in until September." Goldring was planning to stock up on novelty shirts with appliques as well as Action Wear activewear and basic career looks from Audio.

While looking for price points that stretched from $20 to $300 wholesale, she said, "Price is a definite factor today. Customers are putting a lot of things on hold. That means they are shopping around for a better deal. Business is so sporadic right now, I'm confused."

The retailer was keeping her budget flat.

Ginny Grohs, co-owner of the Bootery, a women's sportswear and shoe store in Susanville, Calif., was another on the lookout for immediate goods, with an open-to-buy that was even with a year ago. Linen walk shorts, T-shirts and printed dresses by Carol Anderson, Putumayo and Star of India at up to $60 wholesale were on her shopping list.

Georgia Hughes, owner of Lady B Wear in Clearlake, Calif., said she was shopping for immediate and fall goods, priced up to $60 wholesale.

"We will pick up novelty T-shirts as well as traditional career coordinates by Graff," she said, adding that she was keeping her budget on par with last year.

Among the limited number of buyers reporting increased buying plans was Joan Levine, owner of Camouflage, a boutique in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Noting that her budget was up 10 percent, Levine cited a recovery from the area's devastating earthquake of four years ago.

"Business is coming along," she said. Shopping for immediate goods as well as early fall merchandise at up to $75 wholesale, she favored linen apron dresses by NC-17, body-conscious V-neck T-shirts by Grassroots and short flare skirts.

Tina Netherland, owner of Belle Boutique in Redding, Calif., also reported an increased budget, up 3 percent. "The economy is looking a little better," she said.

Shopping for May and June deliveries, she sought pull-on shorts, sleeveless tops, linen vests and soft layering pieces."It will be 110 degrees in Redding through October," she said. "Plus, we always turn our merchandise in less than a month. We want to offer our customers newness."

Karin Gjording and Lisa Orsaba, co-owners of Alaya, a boutique here, said their fall buying plan was up 20 percent.

"We moved our store a year ago to a less affluent part of town, but business has been stable," Gjording said. However, she added: "I'm still being conservative and relying on reorders of basic items."

The two shopped for cotton, rayon, chenille and cashmere sweaters. They also looked for short and long skirts and tapered pants. The duo liked goods from Urban Outfitters, Action Wear, Cut Loose, Margaret O'Leary, Putumayo and Swept Away, at $10 to $150 wholesale.

Meanwhile, a Fashion Center bridal market that took place simultaneously with this week's general market got little backing. Only five bridal showrooms participated: Jessica McClintock; Mon Cheri Bridals; Peter Elting's multiple line showroom; Irving Garfinkle's multiple line showroom, and Cathy's Concepts, a bridal accessories company. A Saturday evening fashion show, scheduled for half an hour, took only 10 minutes because of lack of merchandise.

Fashion Center general manager Jerry Sorensen expressed disappointment at the lack of manufacturer support for the event, adding, "I just feel badly about the 50 to 60 bridal buyers who came all the way here."

He said he was uncertain of the event's future at this point, given the state of the West Coast economy and the bridal industry's longstanding preference for road sales.

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