By  on July 8, 2008

ATLANTA — Summer dresses and key items interested buyers at AmericasMart, who were in no mood to buy fall, with summer selling just taking off and uncertain times ahead.

While the women's apparel and accessories market that ended its four-day run June 24 is traditionally for holiday and late fall, buyers played it close to the season, filling in immediate goods in proven categories, such as dresses, T-shirts and tank tops.

For consumers on tight budgets, buyers sought items with lots of style and appealing prices. Bold color, innovative prints and textured fabrics were well received, as were more sophisticated shapes that replaced the baby-doll silhouettes of recent seasons.

Officials said attendance was even with last year, noting an increase in the quality of stores.

"Our efforts to bring in better and contemporary lines have meant stores can find everything here without trips to New York," said Chuck Corvi, project manager for apparel trade shows for AmericasMart.

The mart is offering 10 hotels on its Web site with rooms at or less than $135 a night to help buyers and exhibitors struggling with high fuel costs.

Sharon Sheppard, principal with Sheppard & Tucker, a better sportswear sales firm, had low expectations, but managed to meet last year's figures.

"June is an easy market for buyers to skip, especially with the next show [Aug. 16 to 19] coming up so fast," she said.

The weak dollar and hype surrounding the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death last August helped spike international tourism in Memphis, boosting sales at Lansky 126, a contemporary men's and women's store in the Peabody Hotel downtown. Lansky Brothers, originally opened on Beale Street in 1946, was frequented by Presley.

Julie Lansky, third-generation buyer, shopped for Ed Hardy, True Religion and Diesel for her label-conscious international tourists. Denim is her bread and butter and wear-now Flip Flop jeans that don't require hemming by Seven For All Mankind have been bestsellers.

Introducing dresses a few seasons ago was so successful that she bought more for summer in prints and solid cotton styles from Michael Stars, Free People, BCBG, Miss Me Couture, Frenzii and Jully Kang."Southern girls will always wear dresses," she said.

Gas prices and a decline in tourism resulted in a slight sales decline at Copper Penny, a Mount Pleasant, S.C.-based specialty chain with eight stores.

"We're being careful with our open-to-buy," said owner Penny Vaigneur, who cut inventories 10 to 15 percent this year. "Customers are concerned with prices and looking for value. Rather than a plain T-shirt for $75, we're buying only to-die-for looks here and then keeping money in reserve for reorders."

Shopping for lines in the $100 to $250 retail range, Vaigneur focused on colorful dresses and sportswear with novelty prints and details from Free People, Envi, Liquid and Halle Bob, all of which have been popular with college students.

For older customers, a group that she is cultivating with a new department, she bought selected items by Eileen Fisher, Kathleen Sommers, Carolyn Vaile, White & Warren, Trina Turk and Isda. She bought pants, jackets, underpinnings, T-shirts and sweaters from a variety of resources to mix together. Dresses continue to be a top category, though she noted a void in good dresses with enough coverage to suit older customers.

At Fab'rik, an Atlanta-based contemporary chain, sales are up a few percentage points this year compared with normal increases of 10 percent annually.

"The season has shifted," said Dana Spinola, owner. "Spring started slow, with lots of talk of recession, then May and June picked up."

With a tighter budget, Spinola bought summer, extending the season into July, when she would usually bring in fall and transition. She purchased the summer's best-selling item — the long maxidress, which is selling out each week at 10 units per store — in jersey prints and solids, from Veronica M, Double Zero and private label resources. For fall, she bought peacoats in bold colors and jacquard quilted fabrics from Tulle and BB Dakota.

Jill Harris, buyer for Certain Things, a specialty store with two Raleigh, N.C., locations, said spring sales were flat with last year, as consumer wallets are tight. Combined with the rising cost of doing business, the current situation adds up to cautious buying."There's so much uncertainty in the economy, from rising prices on gas to the possible effect from recent Midwest floods making food costs higher," she said.

As a result, she bought summer goods, with no deliveries beyond Sept. 30, and kept price in mind, looking for items with good mark-up potential. She ordered dresses from Isle, along with item tops from Karlie, Kensie Girl and The Truth Is.

"Our soccer-mom customer never liked baby-doll shapes," she said. "That customer wants fashion, but with a more forgiving fit."

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