Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK--Special ordering has become a crucial element of doing business--and it's no longer limited to a store's key customers.
Buyers shopping two upscale ready-to-wear shows here said customized orders are helping to stabilize business in an otherwise shaky market.
Retailers and vendors said distinctive looks and quality service are essential to maintaining a customer base, especially with more comparison shopping being done by high-end consumers.
Designers at the Essex House, which opened Nov. 1 and closes Friday, features 16 resources, including newcomers Lalitte and Yolanda for Irene Couture. Among the 16 firms showing at the American-International Designers at the Waldorf-Astoria, which ends its 12-day seasonal run on Thursday, are first-time exhibitors Michael Ballas, Collection 3 and Varunee.
Each show features dresses, suits and eveningwear for spring and summer.
Offering personalized service while focusing on unusual merchandise has boosted sales by 15 percent at Alley, a 1,000-square-foot boutique in Los Angeles, said owner Sheila Speer.
"People want to be taken care of quietly. You cannot stay in business otherwise," she said. "If you don't offer quality merchandise and cater to your customers, they will go somewhere else to buy something cheap."
After three years of "suffering" at retail, Speer said her customers are "buying like crazy." Speer said she was "mesmerized by the fresh and appealing" Lalitte collection. Based in Denver, Lalitte is designed by Mary Lalitte Ehrin and features rainwear, rtw and accessories.
Planning to spend 15 percent more at this season's show compared to last year, Speer said she also liked the looks of suits by Lane Davis and Marisa Minicucci and eveningwear by Neil Bieff and BF Basics. William Pearson, Collection 3 and Travilla also looked good, she said.
With business flat with last year, Ellen Howery, owner of Ellen's, Of Course, a 1,000-square-foot shop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said she shops with specific customers in mind and photographs certain items to share with clients.
David Hayes's daytime silk dresses at $425, William Pearson's silks at $275, Travilla's four-ply silk cocktail suit at $425 and San Carlin's long-sleeved lace dress at $575 were among her favorites.
With a show budget even with last year, Howery said she was looking for "conservative, flattering clothes." She described Sansapelle and Mark Heister as "rooted in reality."
Howery also liked the looks of Lalitte's raincoats.
Special orders, which now account for 30 percent of annual business--a 5 percent increase over last year--are becoming more important, Howery said.
Yolanda Cellucci, owner of Yolanda's of Boston, said she shops the shows with specific customers in mind: "I know who I'm buying for--instead of buying what everyone else has and marking it down. The hotel shows give us something that no one else has."
Special orders account for 85 percent of her business--a 10 percent gain from a year ago. Firms that readily make alterations or change fabrications, such as Travilla, Sansappelle, San Carlin and S. Balian, are key resources, she said.
Despite her willingness to accommodate customers with special orders, Cellucci said sales are running 10 percent behind last year and shedoesn't expect to break even by year end.
Some vendors said the shows gave them reason to be encouraged.
Mary Schwarz, designer and an owner of Fleurette, an outerwear manufacturer based in Los Angeles, said 10 percent of her annual business is for special orders, whereas three years ago there were hardly any requests.
Even though she sees 50 percent fewer accounts than she did five years ago due to store closings, existing accounts are ordering in greater depth and placing more special orders.
"They want more special orders and more service. It's a reflection of what their customers are demanding," Schwarz said. "They like the coats. They just want them in a different length or another color."
Linda Ward, an owner of San Carlin, a Denham Springs, La.-based eveningwear resource showing at the Waldorf, said she was also optimistic about business. "It's the first time in a while buyers aren't walking in, flopping on the sofa and saying how tough business is," she said. "This market, they're buying more expensive ballgowns, so we're planning at least a 10 percent increase."

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