Byline: Elaine Glusac

CHICAGO--Complaining about a rainy spring and growing outlet mall competition, retailers weren't in the best of moods as they shopped the fall II and holiday preview market last week at the Chicago Apparel Center.
Open-to-buys frequently ranged from even with a year ago to 10 percent below, reflecting sluggish action in the stores. There were some exceptions, though, where buyers were beefing up budgets, and some sales representatives claimed they were pulling increased bookings from decreased showroom traffic.
Buyers once again were on the hunt for distinctive lines--anything novel and not carried by the majors. Key ideas included tailored fall suits, embellished knits and anything in color.
Susan McCullough, marketing vice president for the center, rated overall traffic even with a year ago. The five-day market ran through June 4.
In Karin Berger's better-to-designer showroom, orders were up 10 to 12 percent, though traffic declined an estimated 10 percent, said the multiline representative. Buyers came to Berger for fall fill-ins, holiday and even some early cruise looks. Slim pants were among the favored styles. Buyers were also attracted by textured knits and pieces with color.
"There's nothing basic," said Berger. "If it's novel, it sells."
"It's still an item-driven market," said Susann Craig, multiline rep of moderate to better goods, who sold lots of animal-print clothing. She noted tailored rather than romantic styles in dresses, and casual related separates were in demand. Popular colors included dusty hues of purple, blue and green. "People are taking a break from neutrals," she said.
Though the market appeared slow, Craig's orders ran somewhere between even with last year and up 10 percent.
With spring sales off, at least one buyer admitted she planned to downscale to stay in business. "I'm hoping to do better business at a lower price," said Joanne Rozzi, owner of Peg Ann's, a women's shop in Nashville.
Rozzi plans to drop her better lines in favor of moderate goods, and was shifting her spending to lines like Monique and Great Cavalier, banking on dresses and chenille looks for fall.
"Business has been down for the last two years," said Rozzi, who estimated a 10 percent decrease in sales overall and a 40 percent drop in some categories.
What's the cause? "Construction, weather and two outlet malls," said Rozzi, whose shop has been bypassed by a new highway. "People used to stop to shop on their way through town. Now they stop at the malls."
"The outlet mall has been a detriment to the small retail market," agreed Mary Lou Fischer, owner of Especially For You in Washington, Ill. Fischer said her business was down at least 10 percent due to competition and a recent highway bypass.
"The consumer is very price-sensitive, and that's increased with outlet competition," she said, which is reflected in the fast markdowns taken by major stores as well, adding to the competitive pressures.
While she usually takes paper home with her rather than leaving orders at the market, Fischer noted she was considering lines like Raffaella, Spencer Alexis and Shayna for her moderate-to-better shop.
Others were challenged by wholesale prices they felt were reaching consumer-resistance levels.
"Market prices don't fit the garment," said Alva Ampy, owner of the Downtown Upstairs Boutique in Flint, Mich. "Things are overpriced for the quality you get. If you pay $55 [wholesale] for a skirt and $65 for a top, if you mark it up 50 percent, it's nearly a $300 outfit. That's too much." Though business was "so-so," she kept her open-to-buy even with last year.
For fall, Ampy was scouring the market for highly embellished designs to make her store stand out from the competition. She cited in particular dresses by Night Moods, especially in season-spanning fabrics.
Among the more upbeat buyers was Marie Simmons, owner of Mai-Ree's Boutique in Chicago.
"I cater to the younger market," said Simmons, who carries mostly contemporary lines. "They're the ones spending money. They don't have the responsibilities."
With an open-to-buy up 30 percent, Simmons sought looks by Annie Reva and De Casta, especially in shaped suits.

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