ATLANTA -- Casual dressing, from easy knits to flowing rayon styles, was applauded by retailers shopping for fall fill-ins and holiday goods at the Atlanta Apparel Mart last week.
But buyers complained about the lack of color and newness in many offerings and voids in some categories. Several retailers said their buying was selective, as their budgets ranged from 10 percent down to 15 percent up, compared with last year. Versatility was important to choosy buyers, who were looking for day-into-eveningwear and multiple-function sportswear. Many called for relief from dark, muddy neutrals, which they said were a difficult sale in the South.
The seven-day market ended Wednesday. In contrast to reports of even to off traffic at some other regional June markets, attendance here was up 7 percent over last year, according to Peg Canter, general manager of the apparel mart.
"We didn't have a tremendous market, because there's no such thing as a tremendous June market," said Canter. "But it was tolerable."
Sales representatives offering holiday goods reported increases in bookings, while those with only fall merchandise didn't fare as well.
Don Overcast, principal of Don Overcast & Associates, cited a 6 percent sales increase, based primarily on the strength of holiday lines.
"This is becoming an important market for us," he said. "We've played up holiday with a 'Christmas in June promotion."'
David Eagle, a multiline bridge sportswear sales rep, projected a sales decrease of 10 to 15 percent.
"Bridge resources open holiday late, so we couldn't get holiday goods from our manufacturers," he said.
Among the retailers, David Ethridge, owner of D. Ethridge, a women's better boutique in Dothan, Ala., shopped with an even open-to-buy for holiday and off-price fall merchandise.
"Money is tight," he said. "I have to be more choosy and not buy duplicate looks."
Ethridge said the most significant change in his buying was a shift toward activewear-inspired casual looks, from resources such as Fatiques and Clipper Bay. "My customers want soft, washed, loose looks to wear at home or to run errands," he said.Ethridge said the biggest void in the market was in daytime dresses. "Good sophisticated 'drinking and praying' dresses don't exist," he said. "So I've had to go to suits from Due Per Due and George Simonton."
For the updated mother of the bride, a category which has "exploded," said Ethridge, he bought Karen Lawrence, George F. Couture and Victoria Royal.
Gail Mercer, owner of Alltogether Inc., a better-to-bridge women's specialty store in Augusta, Ga., shopped with an even budget for fall and some holiday. She bought selectively, choosing fewer lines in more depth.
"Holiday is a scary season," she said. "We have to get in and get out fast." Rather than glitz looks, Mercer concentrated on clean, sophisticated dresses, separates and cocktail suits.
Mercer bought sweaters in novelty weaves, such as chenille and metallic looks from Misook, and item jackets from Lynn Murray, Canvas Backs and J.A. Sport. In general, though, Mercer decried a lack of newness in the market.
"The crinkled, relaxed look has been going on for a long time now," she said. "Do we all have to look like we slept in our clothes?"
Mercer also felt the lack of color could damage holiday sales. "Bright sportswear doesn't exist," she said. "There's nothing to appeal to men buying gift items. They won't buy wrinkled brown."
Mercer further noted that all-purpose daytime dresses in the $200 to $400 retail range for women 40 to 50 years old were hard to find, with the exception of lines such as Chetta B, Datiani and Brett Harrison.
Elizabeth and Edward Galfsky, owners of Elizabeth Edwards, a better-to-designer women's shop in Memphis, shopped with a budget up 15 percent, due to a 30 percent sales increase in the past year.
"Many stores have gone out of business in our area, which has helped us," said Edward.
The Galfskys bought items for holiday, such as Christmas sweaters from a variety of vendors, including Belle Pointe and Knitting Needles. The couple generally concentrated on knits, which represent between 30 and 40 percent of total business."Knits have been the fastest-growing category in the past two years," said Edward. "Customers love them as comfortable, easygoing pieces that travel well." They also bought casual weekend wear from David Dart and En Route and traditional looks from British Khaki, Ruff Hewn and Bushwacker.
Knits and other soft dressing were popular choices for Betty Spradlin, owner of La Tierra, a women's better-to-bridge boutique in Jacksonville, Fla.
"Structured suits are no longer viable," she said. "I want comfortable soft suits that go from desk to dinner." She bought David Dart's flowing rayon sportswear and Bettina Riedel in this category.
Spradlin sought out bright colors and lightweight fabrics, which she said were essential to her resort customer, as well as mixed patterns and textures. She agreed with other buyers about the lack of newness in the market, but added that business had improved and that the consumer felt less cautious than in the past.
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