Business may be lackluster, but better sportswear vendors have a few strategies brewing to help increase sales.

Like other sectors in the fashion world, the better-sportswear crowd has a lot on its plate. From angling over how to maintain and attract new business in an increasingly challenging retail climate to finding ways to motivate buyers to place larger orders, including less last-minute ones, vendors have their work cut out for them. But they’re armed with a handful of strategies, from adding more fashion items to expanding distribution.

Economic uncertainty is a key problem for companies, since it’s difficult to plan ahead when the future is unclear. "I’m worried about the economy because I travel everywhere and people are holding back dollars and they’re definitely not buying what they used to," said Linda Weitzman, the New York-based national sales manager at Sideffects of California.

Designer Sigrid Olsen, based in Wakefield, Mass., said, "We have gotten a great response to the line, and our business continues to grow. The only real hesitation I have is in predicting the way the economy is headed at the moment. We keep our fingers crossed."

WHAT A NOVEL IDEA: Instead of focusing on lowering price points, some firms are looking to increase the style quotient of their pieces. "Right now, business is tough, so anything that will catch the eye of the customer we’re focusing on," said Sahar Rokhsar, sales manager for Los Angeles-based Nina Austin. "Business is like a roller coaster now. It has its good moments and then drops down. Our main challenge is to get through this hump and get into better sailing." Nina Austin has about 500 retail accounts, with wholesale prices averaging at about $98 for a silk matte jersey dress.

Equally trend-conscious is Mazmania Inc., an Allentown, Penn.-based sportswear company known for its outerwear featuring wildlife designs. The line’s wholesale price points range from $32.50 to $42.50.

"Our challenge is to stay away from old looks," said owner Marty Mazurek. "We do a lot of scenes with deer, horses and wildlife," said Mazurek. "It’s not a price game for us because we feel we deliver better product than our competition. In this environment, we wrote about the same business we normally write at our first trade show this year."At New York-based Berek Knits, account executive Jean Mercier echoed her colleagues’ sentiments. "For spring and summer, we were aggressively priced because we don’t think women want to spend a lot and for fall we started using new techniques like hand-applied fabric and stitches."

MARKETING SAVVY: In a difficult economy, many companies often cut back on advertising and marketing first. But some vendors don’t think it’s such a wise move, when so many buyers aren’t traveling as much, which in turn makes it difficult to see the product.

At J. Two, a New York-based knitwear company carrying the better brand Sweater Sweater, owner Jamie Gries tried to solve this dilemma about two years ago by spending about $40,000 on a professional photographer and designer to create a Web site and catalog. She said this was the only way she felt she could reach buyers’ attention when they were cutting back on travel expenses.

Today, the company still spends a significant amount on marketing — about $70,000 a year on two marketing campaigns — and uses photographer Sharon Shuster. The company does about $9 million a year in volume.

"We decided to create a Web site, a beautiful look book and we send postcards [to retailers] as constant reminders," said Gries. "You have to [spend money on marketing]. It’s a big expenditure to have hotels and airfares, and buyers used to travel to three, four markets a year. Now, they’re only coming once, if you’re lucky. It’s all about keeping connected to her. And if you want to maintain or grow your business, you have to attract new clients. I don’t know how you can do that without the right tools."

THE MORE, THE MERRIER: Expanding a collection’s retail distribution is a key goal for many better-sportswear vendors. Berek Knits, for example, is seeking to increase its specialty store accounts, so it has added sales representatives. "It was to grow our multistore business and we’re looking to have several thrusts in the market," said Mercier. "We really want to partner with our specialty stores and existing business to give them what they want." She added that the company is projecting a 20 percent boost in sales this year, due in part to its sourcing in East Asian countries such as Vietnam, which helps to keep prices down.Olsen said her $15 million apparel empire relies heavily on its longtime customers, as well as trying to reel in new accounts. "The company is around 40 years old, so we have our loyal customers and they continue with our business," she said. "But business has dropped. Like anyone, we try to keep after our accounts and sell where we can."

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