BUYERS HUNT THAT SPECIAL ITEM

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK--Faced with a soft retail market, buyers planning to attend The International Boutique Show here next month say they're hoping to find the ammunition that will score come fall with their price-conscious, sometimes reluctant customers.
By offering unusual and interesting items, several retailers said they've managed to keep business respectable, with figures running from even with last year to 25 percent ahead.
More than 15,000 buyers are expected to walk the four-day show that opens June 3 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, according to David Larkin, vice president of The Larkin Group, the show's producer.
Helping buyers to find the right looks, the show will for the first time stage complimentary 30-minute runway shows featuring Antique Boutique, XOXO and other show resources. Fashion shows will be held in the Javits' A Hall June 5 at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., and June 6 at 12 p.m.
While the search for unusual items will be intense, retailers will also be armed with their lists of tried-and-true vendors. For example, Amanda Lasker, owner of Gossypia, a 2,000-square-foot store in Alexandria, Va., cited Blue Fish, U.R.U. by Kristine St. Rrik, Flax and Kiko as popular lines at her store, and she plans to shop them all.
She said she will be looking for dresses, sweaters, jackets and jewelry for fall and holiday at the show. Items that wholesale from $40 to $150 do well for her, Lasker said.
"Business has held steady because we're an artsy store. When you get into regular ready-to-wear collections, there are so many department stores, so many sales and so many discount stores," she said. "Coupled with any fear of the economy, that has impact. There's still a lot of downsizing in governments and businesses.
Joyce Hamrah, co-owner of Hamrah's, a 10,000-square-foot women's and children's apparel store in Cresskill, N.J., said she uses the show to find new designers who create special items, such as handknit sweaters, which capture the eye of gift-buyers as well as women looking for extra pieces to spark their wardrobes.
She said she will be looking for nightshirts, T-shirts, sweaters, sweater vests, jewelry, watches and handbags to complement the store's established collections by such designers as Max Mara, Giorgio Armani, Anne Klein and Moschino. With sales 10 percent ahead of last year, Hamrah said business should continue to be strong.
"A lot of people have run out of clothes because they stopped spending during the recession," she said. "We've maintained our business by being selective with our merchandise. We give a lot of service, do free alterations and we know a lot about fashion as well as our customers' tastes--not everyone wants to wear rings in their nose or tattoos."
At Imagery For Her, a 2,000-square-foot-store in Kansas City, Mo., Soda Blu, La Monde, French Connection, Betsey Johnson, Love Tent and Tramp are some of the show vendors that are popular, according to Dale Dunnam, manager.
With a show budget even compared to last year, he said he plans to order immediate and fall dresses, separates and soft suits.
"People are looking for items that coordinate with existing looks," Dunnam said. "They might want a vest to spice up an old blouse and pants."
Barbara Tucker, owner of Gussied Up in Scottsdale, Ariz., said she will be making the trip to the show in search of fall sportswear for her 1,300-square-foot store.
Zoe, Eileen Fisher, Enigma, Mannequin and Retro Rags are favorite vendors, she said.
Despite "phenomenal" dress sales that have helped to put business about 25 percent ahead of last year, Tucker said she plans to offer more pantsuits, jackets and sweaters for fall, suspecting that dress growth may not hold at the same pace. She said she will maintain last year's show budget for her 2 1/2-year-old store.
Kate Cashman, manager for Krystallos in Manhattan, Kan., said most of her show budget --which should be about 15 percent larger than last year--will be spent on dresses, with the remainder designated for relaxed separates.
Her budget is larger, she said, because she is expanding the apparel offerings in the store, which also carries gifts and jewelry.
Having used vendors such as Endeavors, Outer Limits and Flax in the past, Cashman said she will be shopping new resources for immediate, fall and holiday goods.
With business running 20 percent ahead of last year at Island Passage, a five-store operation based in Wilmington, N.C., Plunkett Dodge, owner, said her show budget was increased compared to a year ago.
Looking for immediate and fall fashion-forward separates that wholesale for less than $50, she said Urban Outfitters, Eileen Fisher, Kiko, Putamayo and C.P. Shades are important resources. Retro looks, in both long and short skirts and in tailored pants, should be popular for fall, Dodge said.
Yuzo Ito, owner of In-Transit, a 2,000-square-foot store for juniors in Garden Cove, Calif., said Betsey Johnson, Urban Outfitters and Weston Wear are key vendors for his store.
Ito said he would probably spend more at the show compared to a year ago to cover any price increases, even though business is flat.
Still, he added: "I've been in business for 18 years. The customer is getting more conservative in terms of spending and taste. They don't spend like they used to."
Items that wholesale from $10 to $50 are popular, Ito added; long-sleeved cotton shirts, cotton dresses, cotton pants and wool sweaters are on his checklist.
Gail Levy, owner of Gotham City Clothing in Millburn, N.J., said she will be looking for hot trends for the junior market. Despite a single-digit percentage increase in sales, the retailer's show budget is even with last year, she said.
"Spring sales were soft, and I'm unsure about fall," she said. "I don't think there is anything incredible out there."
Urban Outfitters, Betsy Johnson, Mondorama and California resources generate sales in her 1,100-square-foot store, said Levy, adding she is always looking for new resources.
"I love to buy from the younger ones," she said. "With the new people, you get a lot of innovation. You just have to make sure it's cut well."
Betsey Johnson and California resources are bestsellers at Hot Shot, Big Shot & Hot Shot Kids in Woodbury, N.Y., according to Barbara Beerman, owner. "We've been selling baby T-shirts for two years. They've bought them in prints and solids," she said. "I'm looking for anything that makes a statement that is different from last year. I don't need another slipdress or another apron dress."
Beerman said she will hunt for fall T-shirts, sweaters, sweatshirts, dresses and pants. The retailer's average back-to-school purchases range from $500 to $1,000, Beerman said.
"Price is not really an object. But it has to be for something they really want," she said. "Items sell. They want to be right in the thick of things."

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