DUSSELDORF — When things get rough, keep your cards close to your vest.

With the German women’s apparel market looking weak, retailers and vendors at the recent CPD apparel trade show here said that buyers were delaying buying commitments as long as they could. Evidence of that was that merchants at the show, which was intended to be a fall-winter market, were often looking to fill holes in their spring assortments.

As evidenced at the three-day fair, which closed here Feb. 4, more and more manufacturers are turning to flash programs in reaction to changing ordering patterns. When it comes to style, German manufacturers are focusing on casual, sporty looks in richer-looking fabrics and with more elaborate detailing to rekindle consumer interest. Last year was a brutal one for German retailers. Given the country’s troubled economic climate and the world’s political tensions, few expect any relief in the year to come.

Nevertheless, executives at the fairgrounds and in showrooms scattered throughout Düsseldorf were focused on getting down to business.

"The market is ordering closer to the season," said Hermann Fuchslocher, founder and managing director of the German market-analysis firm that bears his name. "Karstadt and Kaufhof [both German department stores] confirmed that even if things were not so good, their warehouses are empty. They need spring merchandise, but they want new goods, not what they saw in August."

Short-term orders at the fair almost tripled, he said. According to his research, German women’s wear retailers now plan to commit only 63 percent of their fall and winter open-to-buy dollars in advance, holding back the rest for short-term orders.

"There’s no other way. Even niche collections like Nicowa are having to respond with flash programs. The problem is logistics, when the goods are coming from China or Turkey, for example. And there also has to be a change in the traditional thinking of the companies’ creative departments," he suggested. "With Première Vision coming up, they’re concentrating on spring-summer 2004, but what they really have to do is rethink fall-winter 2003-2004 [in order to offer targeted flash programs]."

"Would you dare make a commitment for something you were first going to sell in nine months?" asked Britta Steilmann, chief executive officer of the Steilmann Group. "Long-term buys don’t make sense for retailers economically. I was shocked because in November, we were only showing spring [flash ranges], and buyers wanted to see goods for next winter. It’s a question of economics, not merchandising. But both buyers and sellers have to be trained."The $500 million vendor, which has shed some weight in recent years to concentrate on its core private label and branded separates ranges, is "having a good fall season," Steilmann said.

"Eastern Europe has been very promising from a group perspective, and we have to focus on international growth," she added.

The group is focused on Emozioni, a new quick-turning fashion collection for 19- and 20-year-olds, which offers 46 delivery dates a year.

"We’re competing with Mango with Emozioni, and not many retailers can take up that concept in Germany. But we are supporting it for international business. We’ve had good contacts in the U.S. for Emozioni," she said. "We’re thinking of going with a major retailer, or selling via catalog. It’s a fun collection for young customers."

Quick response, however, is not just a concern for the moderate and popular-priced sector.

"We said this would only happen on the lower level, but no. It’s effecting the designer business, too," said Peter Kapler, the Strenesse Gabriele Strehle board member responsible for marketing and international sales. "In the past, retailers placed 95 percent of their budget for the season. Now, it’s 70 to 80 percent. They expect a faster rhythm, and we present faster, speed programs. For example, we’ll show something in January that is delivered in March."

Strenesse is paying more attention to point-of-sale merchandising, Kapler said, by "taking more responsibility as to how the merchandising is done on the floor, and we’re communicating more with our partners. We’re also investing further in the product, and the so-called speed programs are fashion programs. Because at the end of the day, it’s the quality and the product that counts."

After Germany, Japan and Italy are Strenesse’s strongest markets. Asia has the strongest growth potential at the moment, particularly in Taiwan, Korea and China. Russia is also "showing big, big growth potential," Kapler said.

"We have the USA in focus. It’s where we really want to develop, but it can’t go quickly," he continued. "We want to grow with the right customers. We’re not running after fast turnover."René Lezard, which staged one of the biggest and best-received fashion shows during CPD, is also going the flash program route, as is Bogner.

"We do 50 percent of our turnover with 10 percent of our customers, which is normal these days," commented Norbert Hochleitner, Bogner sales manager. "We’re doing early or precollections to safeguard deliveries, which has gotten a good reaction, especially with our larger customers. And we’re trying to do small, in-between collections, sometimes with only five pieces," like the few T-shirts and jeans Bogner was offering in Düsseldorf for March delivery.

"The manufacturers are all prepared to change their structure, but the fabric suppliers are relatively stiff. They have to offer mid-collections, which they don’t at the moment. It’s the last step that’s blocking everything," he said. But difficult or not, he concluded, a faster rhythm "must be possible."

The show attracted 62,000 visitors this season, up from 60,000 at the first combined women’s-men’s CPD in August and 48,000 visitors at the February 2002 edition, according to Manfred Kronen, ceo of the Igedo Co., organizers of CPD. The number of exhibitors also grew from 1,700 in 2002 to about 2,000 this season.

In total, 40 percent of the buyers came from abroad, "which was absolutely necessary," Kronen contended. "Last year, 3,000 German retailers went bankrupt or gave up their businesses, but we could more than make up for it with visitors from abroad."

The fair itself also continues to evolve. CPDxsite, Igedo’s attempt to woo jeans and more trendy junior resources with a separate show-within-a-show, has now been folded into the main fair. But this season, Igedo also supported a new event for "cutting-edge fashion," Reevolutions, which was held in circus tents near the fairgrounds.

Young designers also continue to get a boost from Igedo, with exhibition and runway space in the Fashion Gallery. Kronen also said CPD would introduce an active-oriented sportswear segment in August called CPD Sport Fashion in Motion.

Active fashion is both a major trend and a way of life, he reasoned, "and fashion specialty stores have more competence in apparel than active sportswear retailers."

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