Atlanta Buyers on the Hunt for Distinction

ATLANTA — An influx of buyers from outside the Southeast brought a buzz to the August AmericasMart.<br><br>While retailers said that summer selling had been spotty, they had hopes that fall would be stronger and they had their eyes and order...

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ATLANTA — An influx of buyers from outside the Southeast brought a buzz to the August AmericasMart.

This story first appeared in the September 3, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

While retailers said that summer selling had been spotty, they had hopes that fall would be stronger and they had their eyes and order books open for distinctive and unusual items that they hoped would persuade consumers to buy. Vendors at the spring 2003 market for social-occasion, prom, pageant and bridal clothing reported a strong show, saying it appeared the AmericasMart’s stepped up efforts to draw retailers from across the nation had paid off.

Special events and seminars drew large crowds during the five-day Atlanta market, which wrapped up on Aug. 26, and a Saturday night bridal fashion show attracted 900 people. But the social-occasion excitement filtered to other areas, particularly lines offering spring collections, and items unique enough to entice specialty stores looking for a competitive edge.

Exhibitors said they were pleased not only with the turnout, but also with sales.

Bruce Blaustein, president of Teri Jon, a New York-based social-occasion line, reported a sales increase of 15 to 20 percent over the August 2001 market, coming from existing accounts and new buyers from the Midwest and Northeast.

Similarly, Alan Davidson, showroom manager for Panapoly, an Atlanta-based prom-and-pageant line, had a sales increase of between 25 and 30 percent, coming largely from out-of-territory buyers and increased marketing efforts.

Vendors praised AmericasMart’s buyer-outreach programs.

“I’ve shown in other markets, and Atlanta is definitely the prom center in the nation,” said Davidson.

The women’s and children’s apparel and accessories show, drew almost 10,000 buyers, a 10 percent increase over last year.

“It was as good a market as we’ve had in years,” said Peg Canter, vice president, general manager. “Each segment that we expected to have a good show — social occasion, traditional sportswear and accessories — exceeded expectations.”

With a wide range of specific needs, in terms of climate, price and style, buyers responded to femininity in resort and spring collections. Ruffles and lace, in sheer, flowing or breezy open-weave fabrics, in vivid colors with texture and shading, were popular choices for buyers from many regions.

While some Southern buyers complained that suede and leather styles wouldn’t suit their hot spring climates, Midwesterners and Northerners stocked up on lightweight suede and leather, as a stand-alone fabric and mixed with denim. Buyers bought romantic silhouettes, although many said they believed the peasant and prairie trends will be over by spring.

Buyers loaded up on cropped pants, in many variations, for spring, and some applauded the return of little skirts, shorts and skorts. Embellishment, asymmetrical sleeves, hems and Asian influences were also prevalent.

Retailers’ most common request was for distinctive items, which could distinguish their specialty stores from department stores and discounters. While summer business has been dismal for many, early fall sales have been encouraging, they said. Consumer confidence is shaky, said buyers, due to stock market uncertainties and the threat of war, which has made consumers even more concerned about price. Cautious buyers focused on items, rather than sinking big dollars in any one collection

Wendy Hutchinson, owner of H. Baskin Clothier, which has two Pittsburgh stores, had reduced her budget 10 percent, but was looking for classic, feminine clothing.

“We have to buy more traditional lines, such as Sharon Young, David Brooks and Susan Bristol earlier than contemporary lines,” she said.

Hutchinson said the assortment at the Atlanta market is more in line with her customers’ taste, which runs toward “pretty, feminine clothing, with lots of color and prints.” She bought floral suits with ruffle cuffs and portrait collars from Sharon Young, and prairie-inspired looks such as appliquéd broomstick skirts by Sandy Starkman. She also bought items from David Dart and Democracy, as well as Go Silk’s monochromatic separates and Forwear’s black lace separates. She said she also picked up a new print line, Loco Lindo.

Hutchinson focused on evening separates for price-conscious social-occasion consumers.

“Customers would rather have a versatile $200 to $300 outfit than a $500 dress,” she said.

She said that business through July was down between 6 and 8 percent, although August sales were off only 5 percent. She said that she and her mall neighbors have noted a slowdown in traffic.

Michael Day, owner of Buena Vista Shop, a 4,000-square-foot Winston-Salem, N.C.-based specialty store, shopped Atlanta for spring sportswear and special-occasion items, which make up 10 percent of his sales.

Searching for newness and evening separates, he bought Jovani for prom and WWW for evening, including ombré shadings, iridescent overlays and asymmetrical silhouettes.

Taking a shotgun approach, Day sampled a wide variety of lines, from Cambridge Dry Goods and Staples to Telluride. Day said he liked AmericasMart’s sportswear offerings, especially the bright colors, new fabrics, treatment and details.

Day bought denim, with suede or whipstitch details from Renfrew, and garments in light fabrics with subtle embroidery from many lines. Along with spring cropped pants, Day bought shorts and skorts.

“With so many capri pants in discounters, shorts will seem more exclusive,” he said. “Customers have asked for them.”

After cutting his inventories back the last two years, Day kept his budget flat for this show. Business has been tough this year, he said, but customers have bought fall early. For more price-conscious consumers, Day shopped for deals and values.

Items were key for Rachel Gottfried, president of No Time to Shop, a Fort Lauderdale-based by-appointment retail operation that serves customers out of a 27-foot truck that contains $500,000 in merchandise. Gottfried bought for her clientele of 30- to 80-year-old socialites, snowbirds and executives.

Gottfried bought core resources Mel & Lisa and Yansi Fugel for frequent travelers. For evening, she bought cocktail suits and separates. She bought short skirts by Cynthia Steffe to pair with sweaters by Il Gilet and suede-and-denim combinations by Beau Dawson and Vakko. She said shirt jackets are a popular alternative to suits, and that capri pants continue to be strong sellers for her, in various lengths and widths, from lines including Hanna & Gracie. In blouses, which have also sold well, she bought updated silhouettes with ruffles and ruching by Kiska.

“Customers want something different, and they don’t even know what it is,” she said. “There’s a void in unique items. Customers are also cautious, and they want casual, less-expensive looks for everyday.”

Lynette Perlis, co-owner of The Big Store, a 10,000-square-foot specialty department store in Tifton, Ga., said some of the trends at the show seemed like a rehash of last season.

“We see trends at high prices and lower-price knockoffs, but not enough direction in the middle-price points,” she said. “It’s probably too early for a complete look at spring. We’re hoping for better direction in October.”

She added that many early spring fabrics were too heavy for her south Georgia climate.

With a budget equal to last year’s, Perlis bought holiday sweaters by several resources, including Sigrid Olsen, but held off on buying core resources such as Liz Claiborne and Rafaella, which weren’t ready with complete spring groups, she said.

Summer business has been slow, with cautious consumers, she said. Early school openings in mid-August also hurt back-to-school business.

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