NEW YORK--Bridal warehouses are the newest member of the wedding. Specialty retailers shopping the New York International Bridal Apparel Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center here on Monday said they are using their niche in service as the way to battle warehouse operations, which have sprung up in the past few years and are competing with bargain-basement prices. Retailers and exhibitors are optimistic about spring business, banking on silk and simplicity for gains of 20 percent or more. The show began Saturday and ends today. Heather Donohue, owner of Rebas in North Bergen, N.J., and Heathers in Creskill, N.J., said it's tough to get the brides into the stores. "Business is difficult because of the consumer's perception that she can get a better deal at a warehouse," said Donohue. "That's not always the case, but it is the perception. To fight it, we have to have better advertising, emphasize our sales knowledge and customer service." She said simple looks with less beading, and chiffon styles are among key trends. Rosemary Marsh, partner in Angel, an East Islip, N.Y., bridal shop, concurred that simple looks are key. "Shiny is out," she said. "Customers want matte satin and imported Italian satin." She noted that about 10 percent of her customers are pregnant. "I'm glad we're finally seeing dresses that meet the needs of brides who are expecting," she said. "They use a lot of beadwork in the front and hold a big bouquet. Most of them don't necessarily want to hide it, but they don't want to look foolish, either." Carolyn Panico, owner of Special Occasions in Colonia, N.J., said accessories are an important part of her business. It's high-margin, and something the bride doesn't hesitate to spend money on, she said. "Brides are all going over their budgets on their dresses and the accessories," she said, projecting an increase of about 30 percent for spring at her better-price shop. Jon Saltzman, owner of the Bridal Factory Wearhouse in Breinigsville, Pa., a suburb of Allentown, said the same thing that happened to the corner grocery store when the supermarket came in will happen to the small mom-and-pop bridal shop once the warehouses are in full swing. "We offer everything a small store offers--consultants, service, the atmosphere--and the best price," he said. "We call it a warehouse to get the people in, but we have plush carpeting, chandeliers, full-time seamstresses. The difference is that there's no waiting. A woman who's a size 16 can come in and try on 100 dresses in her size and walk away with one the same day. The key is she sees what she looks like in that dress. She doesn't have to guess and order it from a picture." Saltzman's 8,000-square-foot store has been open since January. The pioneers of bridal warehouses had a bare-bones approach--no real help, cement floors--but the business isn't that way anymore, he said. "We buy in bulk, so we can start dictating terms and get the best prices. And we pay fast because we have good cash flow," he said. "It's the same reason why Wal-Mart is so successful." More than 3,500 retailers were expected to visit the bridal show, compared with 2,000 at the last show in April, according to Gail Stone, president of 411 Resources Inc., which produces the New York and Las Vegas editions of this event. About 150 lines were represented. Stephen Szames, president of Alfred Sung Bridals, Toronto, said the volume of stores and the quality of accounts over the weekend was "very good," and that understated elegance was the overriding trend. Dresses in chiffon and organza, with little or no embellishment and with dropped-waist and A-line silhouettes are the top choices. Sung's price points are moderate to better, at $480 to $800 wholesale. Szames said the company holds the prices down by using polyester-blend fabrics. Alfred Sung Bridals made its bow in the U.S. last spring, and Szames expects to double his business for spring 1996. Szames said the distribution is tightly controlled--Sung has no road force--and he doesn't sell to warehouse operations. Leslie Pomeroy, owner and designer of the 10-year-old Bayje Bridals of Aptos, Calif., said confinement of the line is important to help retailers fight the discounters. She projected a gain of 25 percent for spring. Her line is all silk, with little or no embellishment. "We have a retail store as well, so we know what customers want first-hand--natural fibers," she said. VanLear, a bridal gown resource, has launched a lease/option-to-buy program for retailers. "It takes a tremendous amount of money to get started with samples," said Jan Bentley, in marketing for VanLear. "With this program, the retailer has a six-month lease on the gowns, during which time she can order from them or sell them. If they don't sell, she doesn't get stuck with them--she can return them." Lora VanLear, an owner and designer, projected business would be ahead by about 35 percent for spring. She said warehouses have made the bridal retailer skittish, although they haven't affected wholesalers as much. The company does not sell to warehouses, to protect its distribution. Among nontraditional vendors at the show was Liz Claiborne Nights, which was showing its year-old collection of evening dresses for the bridesmaid market for the first time. "We got an excellent response from bridal retailers, who view the collection as a way to gain back bridesmaid business they had lost to the department stores," said Mark Donatiello, national sales manager. "The line is understated and modern-looking, well priced, and it is something you can wear again."
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