Despite a sluggish economy and a fear of flying among someAmericans since last year’s terrorist attacks, low airfares and trend-savvy shows and markets are prompting more buyers to travel.

When business gets tough, the buyers get going. The industry may be rife with talk about cuts in travel budgets, but a survey of specialty store retailers in the Southwest found that they are making more buying trips than ever before. The boost in travel is due in part to cheap airfares, the ever-quickening trend cycle and the plethora of trade shows, market weeks and other shopping options. Also, buyers are finding that different cities tend to be better for certain categories.

It’s true some retailers have started to cut trips a day or two shorter to save money, while others are reluctant to fly post Sept. 11, 2001. But they said it’s increasingly critical to visit diverse shows to keep assortments fresh and on target. Buyers now have a slew of shopping options available: regional marts in Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles; trade shows in Europe, Las Vegas and New York; single-vendor showrooms; and increasingly, sales reps who make house calls.

"When business gets tough, I want to travel more, to find the next great line to excite my customer," said Russ Gordon, owner of Bricks, a better-to-bridge boutique in Wichita, Kan.

Gordon attends New York’s Fashion Coterie twice a year in search of new labels and, two years ago, began adding two trips a year to Intermezzo for novelty accessories. He also budgets in the big fall and spring shows in Dallas and sporadic trips to showrooms in Manhattan.

This year he may also head west to Los Angeles to scope out casual lifestyle labels. "I just need one or two good ideas to make the trip worthwhile," he said.

Jyl Kutsche, owner of Therapy contemporary boutique in downtown Austin, is also on the road more.

"If anything, I’ve been doing more traveling, but it’s by necessity rather than by desire," she said. In 2001 she upped her buying trips to eight — three more than she made the previous year — and she plans to keep it at that level.Kutsche attends markets in Dallas and Los Angeles once annually and makes two stops a year at the Coterie. On top of that, she has tacked on more showroom visits in Manhattan, London and Paris, noting, "That’s where I want to keep expanding."

"I travel off-market and go to showrooms because I work with smaller designers who don’t go to markets," she said. "Dallas is about checking in with people I’ve already been buying from. L.A. is a bit more casual and has more must-have labels. In New York I find up-and-coming designers."

"Cutting travel? Why would we do that?’’ echoed Betty Rial, director and buyer for Pollyanna, a dress store in Corpus Christi, Tex. "We’re in the business of making money. We’re still cautious, but we have to stay abreast of the business. You can’t sell from an empty cart."

Rial focuses her schedule strictly on the five markets in Dallas, explaining, "There’s no need to go anywhere else. We feel it’s expanding its vendors, and there’s a lot of European and contemporary.’’

Ann Payne, owner of Iz & Max, a contemporary store in Shreveport, La., typically frequents Dallas five times a year and visits Las Vegas twice annually for shoes. She also attends Coterie and Intermezzo, simultaneously peeking at New York’s Sole Commerce and Femme shows.

The boutique owner said she’s trying to streamline her travel budget by staying at cheaper hotels and cutting trips short before making decisions to skip shows altogether, though this year she’ll forgo Intermezzo.

"Everyone [in Shreveport] goes to Dallas, so we’re tripping over each other,’’ she said. "When buying from New York, it’s easier not to see my lines all over town later. In Dallas it’s very hard to get exclusive. There’s a little more protection at Coterie."

"We’re judicious with how many days we’re traveling," said Lissa Benson, vice-president, general merchandise manager, and bridge buyer for Balliet’s, a designer specialty store in Oklahoma City.

With an annual checklist of three New York and four Dallas journeys, she explained, "We use New York for couture and designer, Coterie for bridge, and Dallas for designer and bridge. In New York I can walk the aisles and see the trends and colors. In Dallas I can actually work."Katy Culmo, owner of Austin’s two hip By George boutiques, has mixed feelings about Coterie. "It’s my only window to buy European lines, but there’s no way to get all your work done at Coterie,’’ she said. "It’s so big and so cramped that I get sensory overload. It’s grueling. Plus, a lot of designers don’t go to Coterie, so more and more I’m going to showrooms. I do the easy stuff first at L.A. or Coterie and then finish the rest at one or the other." She also checks out the 4-year-old Designers & Agents show held during Los Angeles market.

Mentioning that she’s considering staying at less expensive hotels and nixing dinner at Nobu during upcoming New York buying trips, Culmo said her traveling has been flat the past three years.

"I’m just tired of the weekends being eaten up,’’ she admitted. "I want to travel as little as possible and get my work done as efficiently as possible. I would like to cut back, but there’s no way. There’s too much stuff I want to buy."

Owner Calli Saitowitz of Houston’s two BB1 Classic locations consistently attends the quintuplet of Dallas markets since it’s a convenient 45-minute flight from her home city. She also visits Coterie once or twice a year, but complained about the tight scheduling of shows.

"I think because of all the close scheduling of market dates, I am inclined to miss a couple of the New York markets that I would have probably frequented a little more often in the past,’’ she said. "I just don’t feel that compelled to run back."

Donna Chaoker, owner of Avant, a contemporary women’s boutique in Dallas, visited Manhattan for Coterie this fall for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001.

"After 9/11, I’m not looking forward to going to New York,’’ she said. "It just took something out of me. But I’m spending less time in New York because the L.A. and Vegas markets are more in-tune with the feminine, sexy style that Avant is known for. New York is tougher, more tailored, and heavier for winter."Beyond four annual trips to some combination of New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Chaoker attends the primary Dallas marts. "In ’99 I didn’t travel beyond Dallas and didn’t have any problem maintaining our mix, and my bread-and-butter L.A.-based lines come to Dallas," she pointed out.

Andy Gaedcke, owner of Nuit eveningwear store in Houston, divides her scouting between Paris, Coterie, New York showrooms and Dallas. This year she hopes to omit Intermezzo. "By that time, I only use it to fill in with immediate buys," she said, adding she picks up plenty of accessories at Coterie and sticks to Dallas for the relationships and accessibility.

Jane Vanisko McCan, owner of Austin’s contemporary clothing and accessory boutique Shiki, usually visits the five Los Angeles markets, but this year she returned to Coterie for the first time since 2000 and in August made her first visit to WWDMAGIC in Las Vegas.

"I first did Dallas and L.A., but I don’t attend Dallas anymore because I have better luck in L.A.’s contemporary section, where I’ll find lower-priced lines," she said. "The climate there is like the climate in Austin, and the fashions follow. Plus the small lines don’t come to Dallas. It’s nice to shop both coasts. If I see a trend at both, I know I’m on the right track."

In contrast, Stephen Skouda, buyer and vice president of merchandising of the four-store Julian Gold chain based in San Antonio, Tex., said he stopped going to Los Angeles because those same vendors were showing in Dallas or in Manhattan.

Noting he’s traveling more to uncover something fresh, Skouda explained that this year he’ll venture to New York showrooms about six times for ready to wear, Intermezzo twice for accessories, and Dallas two to three times for more bags and belts.

"Dallas is about the convenience. Southwest, $99, pop, zip, you’re there in no time,’’ he enthused.

Skouda’s also traveling more because of lower fares and airline bonus programs, making day trips to Dallas more economical than longer stays with overnight hotel costs. He’s also responsible for more areas than most specialty buyers—from shoes, bags, and belts to suits, coats, rainwear, and leather—because Julian Gold is competing with major Texas department stores. These duties have led to incremental travel increases during the past few years and a 20 percent rise from 2001 to 2002, he said."The business is changing so drastically; it’s necessary to pick up on the pulse," he said. "New York is better for novelty. And the more novel it is, it pops. The customer wants to touch it." Furthermore, Skouda said, "Reps come visit us now, especially in contemporary because things are changing so fast."

"Now they’ll come to see you, both Dallas and L.A. reps," agreed Culmo. "Those L.A. girls work hard for their money."

Her store hosted more on-site sales reps in the last year, she noted.

"Everybody’s out there hustling because there are a lot of stores and a lot of vendors," Culmo explained.

"Dallas reps used to come once to Houston, but now they’re here twice a season," echoed Gaedcke. "I’ve started the season by the time they come down, so then I can add."

Payne has spotted the same trend. "Dallas reps are calling more. There must be a money crunch," she observed, adding that she doesn’t like in-store appointments. "I end up buying things I don’t need when they visit."

"Markets have become much less important for me since most vendors come to me," noted Sharon Lucas,co-owner of Dallas-based Luke’s Locker, which operates three athletic apparel and shoe stores in Texas. "If we’re an important account, it’s certainly advantageous to come to us. And it’s more difficult for the vendors to attend all the markets they need to, so it works for everybody."

Rosanne Saginaw, owner of Dallas accessories showroom Saginaw and Others, said, "I travel all the time to stores, but don’t necessarily always take products. But if you put a pencil to it, being on the road on a long-term basis is not cost-effective."

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