Last winter was a chilly one for many parts of the country, and next winter promises similar conditions — important factors for outerwear vendors seeking to boost business.

Though the economy was less than ideal, the cold weather helped beef up sales this past year, and winter 2004 isn’t expected to be notably warmer, much to the delight of outerwear vendors. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, this winter is expected to be wetter, colder and snowier than normal in the Northeast.

Even with the good news, though, there are still challenges facing the outerwear community, such as how to stay price-competitive, how to cater to retailers and ensure that merchandise is hitting a chord with consumers. Here, a look at issues facing the outerwear crowd:

  • THE PRICE IS RIGHT: “Price is definitely a factor in our market,” said Jeff Adler, senior vice president of Los Angeles-based Adler Leather. “We started manufacturing domestically 50 years ago and used to employ 300 people for many years. Then prices started to go down and there was a lot of competition, and we had to fight the importers.”

    Eventually, Adler Leather succumbed to the price game and began manufacturing offshore, something most in the apparel manufacturing industry had to address during the Nineties. Now, the company’s prices stay relatively level each year. Though Adler declined to reveal figures, he said he expects sales to be up about 25 to 30 percent for spring 2004. With China’s economy pegged to the U.S., Chinese manufacturers have lowered raw material prices, Adler said, which allows for a healthier markup.

    “We definitely anticipate the season to be healthy,” said Adler. “A lot of smaller stores have held back. Twenty-five percent is a nice increase that’s not too much and not too small. I always try to reach that every year.”

    Getting the right price can also mean purchasing full garment packages or sourcing materials overseas. For some outerwear companies, using less-expensive furs is an option. For New York-based Tendler Furs, the high price of a chinchilla coat — which can run from $8,000 to $150,000, for example — is just not affordable for some of its retail clients, even though they like the look. So the company dyed Spanish Rex rabbit to emulate chinchilla and offers coats for the much more affordable price range of $325 to $375 wholesale.
  • RETAILERS RULE: Retailers are ordering closer to season, and while vendors said it’s best to accommodate them, sometimes it’s a good idea to set boundaries, they added.

    “The trend is that stores are buying later,” said Linda Bretti, founder of New York-based outerwear line Linda Richards, who also said business is flat with last year. “I’m going to WWDMAGIC with spring and immediate because I think people will see an item and bring it in for the fourth quarter to add life to the stores.”

    Adler Leather, however, will stop selling fall merchandise in October. In the past, Adler said he has sold some last-minute holiday merchandise that stores ended up returning. “We got burned when they sent it all back to us,” he said. “[Now] we don’t start selling again until January to keep them hungry; that’s the way to do it. We’re not a big guy, so that’s why we have to watch ourselves.”

    At WWDMAGIC, Bretti said she plans to meet with existing and potential accounts from Arizona, California, Colorado and Alaska. She hasn’t attended the show in about 10 years, but decided to head to it this year since stores are traveling to New York less, she said.

    While Bretti said she has worked almost exclusively with Italian fabrics since she started her business 18 years ago, the exchange rate between the euro and the dollar has driven up fabric costs. Now, the company is thinking of sourcing elsewhere to keep prices down at retail.

    “There’s no question that fabric coming from Europe is more expensive,” said Bretti. “I’m actually investigating some llama out of Bolivia, and we’re looking at other places to source. If it’s going to be [expensive], I want the fabrics to be superspecial.”

  • MARKET THAT COAT: Though most outerwear firms don’t have big budgets set aside for elaborate advertising campaigns, carefully placed ads can be beneficial, executives said.

    Natural Furs and Linda Richards each took out recent full-page ads in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, respectively. Linda Richards has recorded dozens of calls from individuals searching for the advertised coat, said Bretti, who then directed callers to retailers who had bought the coat.However, now that fur has become so mainstream — according to vendors, this is largely due to the hip-hop community — adding novelty fur items to their lines is marketing in itself since so many retailers are looking for new and interesting items. It’s also a bonus that fur coats tend to be less label driven, executives said.

    “The urban market has brought back fur in a big way,” said Victoria Bruni, Tendler Furs’ sales director. “Fur is becoming more casual; you don’t have to put on an evening gown to wear it. You can wear it over a pair of jeans.”

    Joey Barnes, vice president of Montreal-based Musi Inc., said much of what the line makes is geared to an urban retailer, such as fur coats in pink, blue and bright orange.

    For some vendors, licensing is another strategy to gain recognition for the company and build business, such as at Natural Furs, which licensed the Feraud Paris fur line.

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