Inspiring growth in the casual market is serious business for vendors.

Vendors in the casual lifestyle section at WWDMAGIC might be selling clothes with laid-back styling, but they take their businesses seriously.

Many are zeroing in on customer service, hoping to grow by treating their customers right. This focus is also aiding some with their expansion to larger chain stores, which often require more attention than the local mom-and-pop boutique. Others are also expanding with new product categories.

Pricing, too, continues to be an issue, with companies taking advantage of low-cost labor and production overseas.

SERVICE WITH A SMILE

The clothes might be the most vital part of the fashion business, but given the competitive environment, customer service is another pillar that many firms lean on for an added advantage.

Nina Tolentino, president and designer of A Touch of Class Clothing, a contemporary casualwear vendor, places great importance on “taking care of your customers on a one-to-one basis.”

That personal touch, plus prompt deliveries, are key to building a lasting relationship, she said.

Treating the retail customer well also means ensuring the quality of the goods being shipped.

“We don’t just take the merchandise from the hanger and dump it in a box and send it on to our customers,” she said.

Tolentino also looks to get a leg up by being ready to meet retailers’ orders.

“We cut the goods, even if it’s a new style, before we market it,” she said. “If I go to MAGIC and write the orders, my staff can ship tomorrow. There are going to be a lot of customers who want merchandise now.”

Needle & Threads, a novelty knit and related sportswear firm, has had to ramp up its customer service as it expands, said sales executive Stewart Fruman.

“From a computerization standpoint, we’ve introduced new programs in the system,” he said.

The applications give the sales force access to more information about orders to answer customers’ questions more efficiently. “They have much better control of what they’re doing,” Fruman said.THE PRICING GAME

Giants like Liz Claiborne Inc. and Kellwood Co. have leveraged huge investments in technology and global supply chains to reduce prices, forcing smaller firms to sharpen their prices as well.

“We’re giving back to the consumer, through the retailer, the lower price points that they’ve grown to love,” said Martin Klein, executive vice president of sales for Kaktus Inc., a related separates, activewear and misses’ firm.

“We’ve actually brought pricing down because of the fact that we’re taking advantage of where we produce overseas and passing it on to the consumer,” he said.

Kaktus produces its goods in eight Asian countries and sells its tops and bottoms at average wholesale prices of $8 to $15.

Deanna Farrell, owner of Deanna Farrell Designs, which markets Cha Cha sandals and casual resortwear, said she was trimming back her prices. For instance, a camisole dress wholesales for about $19, while a rayon poncho goes for as low as $9.50. “My price points were $2 to $3 more per item,” she said. “In order to reflect a more moderate price point, I shopped for better production abilities that were able to give me a better quality, but at a more reasonable price,” said Farrell.

All of the firm’s production is done in Indonesia.

“The market today is a lot more competitive. The big discount stores and the department stores are constantly on sale, and I sell to a lot of specialty boutique shops and surf shops,” she said. “It’s very key for a specialty store to be able to shop the market and find things at a price that they can bring in and do a nice markup on and still have things that are different from the department stores.”

Mark Wexler, vice president of sales for India Bali Imports, noted that the market was squeezing more fashion into the lower-priced arena.

“I see better fashions coming in at moderate price points,” he said. “Price is still going to be important; people are still looking for value.”

STRETCHING OUTVendors at WWDMAGIC are also looking to expand by attracting new customers.

“We are looking to new channels, looking to broaden our horizons beyond the market niche we carved out for ourselves,” said Kristin Quigley, vice president of sweater firm Icelandic Design.

The firm, which has a specialty-store base, is looking to move into catalogues and more sports and outdoor stores.

“The consumer is being choosy about where she’s going to spend her dollars, but definitely will buy things that are unique, less basic,” she said.

Icelandic is also continuing its push into more versatile year-round fibers.

Tsonga, a shoe firm that’s showing at WWDMAGIC, is expanding as well — into handbags and apparel stores.

“We launched a line of handbags this month, which is what a lot of our customers have been asking for,” said Claire Lindsay, president. Tsonga specializes in fashionable but comfortable shoes.

Last year, the company began marketing its goods to apparel stores and has tripled its apparel customers each season, Lindsay said.

Expanding beyond specialty stores into some larger doors has been a good move for Needle & Threads, said Fruman.

“We’ve branched out into moderate department stores,” he explained. “It’s worked out very well.” After just a year, the move has helped the firm nearly triple its volume.

Working with bigger, more demanding retailers, though, required some additional effort. That’s why the firm has beefed up its customer service.

“To get them is so difficult. Losing them is so easy,” said Fruman of the department stores.

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