Somber Buyers Seek Color in Atlanta

ATLANTA — Color, novelty and prints boosted spirits at the AmericasMart, where the mood of buyers was sober, as retail business suffers from the prevailing uncertainty over war, job losses and the ailing economy.<br><br>Retailers were hesitant,...

View Slideshow

ATLANTA — Color, novelty and prints boosted spirits at the AmericasMart, where the mood of buyers was sober, as retail business suffers from the prevailing uncertainty over war, job losses and the ailing economy.

This story first appeared in the February 20, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Retailers were hesitant, based on sluggish or erratic holiday and early spring sales. Having already adjusted inventory and cut costs last year, many slashed budgets further, taking wait-and-see attitudes rather than making big commitments.

“Women’s business is just static,” said Rick McKnight, owner of McKay’s, a better and bridge store in Columbus, Ga., and the Kiddie Shoppe, an upscale children’s store. “People aren’t interested in shopping, with the economy, the stock market and the President set on going to war. They’re more likely to buy something for their children or their home.”

Despite retailer comments, AmericasMart officials described the show, which ran Jan. 30-Feb. 3, as “robust, energized and rich with buying activity,” with buyer attendance increasing in double digits over last year.

Spring and summer trends dominated the show, including Asian influences, new prints, romantic lace, ruffles and layers. Cargo and utility looks resurfaced in modern interpretations, often softened by sheer pieces. Embellishment continues in appliqués, crochet and embroidery. Lines for fall included lots of texture and mixed media, such as leather paired with velvet, silk jacquard or lace appliqué.

Buyers increased dollars for accessories, which have performed well recently, especially in novelty handbags, nature-inspired jewelry and imaginative shoes.

AmericasMart launched the New Temporaries, a second-floor show with more than 150 booths of lines new to Atlanta. Mostly apparel, the show also incorporated categories such as children’s wear and “body and soul,” or bath and body, products.

Trimmings, a Corsicana, Tex.-based home fragrance line that shows in the Atlanta Gift Mart, launched a new bath and body line at the apparel show. Angela Atkinson, a partner in the firm, said she met with more than 30 apparel stores that carry spa and bath products.

Permanent exhibitors gave mixed assessments of the show. While new accounts or hot lines often compensated for buyer caution, most exhibitors said retailers were not upbeat, given the current state of the nation.

With lines split between summer and fall merchandise, Lee Budden, principle of an eponymous moderate-to-better sales firm, had a slight sales increase based on spring goods, especially dresses, but he added that retailers were “complaining about business more than ever.”

Fall collections spurred business for Mark Garland, principle of a namesake bridge sportswear showroom. With 80 percent of lines showing fall, Garland had a 20 percent sales increase over last year.

“Buyers are smarter now and planning budgets ahead,” he said. “Manufacturers are also smarter, giving buyers a reason to buy with more cutting-edge fashion, rather than basics.”

“Friday was a good day, but as the weekend went on, with the space shuttle disaster, there seemed to be a pall over the market,” said retailer McKnight.

Increasing accessories, especially high-end artistic jewelry lines, McKnight bought Geo Art, Erica Lyons and others. In handbags, now a key category, McKnight picked up several new novelty lines, such as Mary Jane, Konfetie and Lottie Dottie, all from the New Temporaries area.

McKnight bought occasion looks, mostly short cocktail dresses that retail under $300, from Citrine, Kay Unger and Phoebe by Kay Unger. In sportswear, he concentrated on looks such as reversible jackets by Judy Tampa and Cullen, Rayure blouses and items by Will’s River. He bought jeans, still strong, by Christopher Blue, with tops to dress denim up or down.

From Yansi Fugel, he bought a red-and-black group to appeal to University of Georgia fans. With specific customers in mind, he bought luxury shearling coats by Audrey Talbot.

After a slow holiday, and several days of lost business due to January snow, Jenna Mathis, owner of J. Elle in Davidson, N.C., shopped for sharp prices and fewer resources.

“We’re taking a hard look at everything we buy, looking at what’s working and going forward with that,” she said, adding that layoffs in her area had left consumers concerned with job security, and that several retailers had recently gone out of business.

Shopping for lines that offered fall, she bought heavily in Olsen, which she said “appeals to all ages.” For summer, she bought Byron Lars’ shirts with feminine detail. Expanding accessories, she bought Barse coral and turquoise jewelry, silk Oriental-style handbags by Mishelly, sandals by Mystique and sunglasses by Max Studio.

Marigail Mathis, owner of an eponymous store in Florence, Ala., shopped for new talent for a slightly younger customer, adding to a core mix of around 12 vendors. She found several fresh looks in the New Temporaries area.

Shopping for fall color “is always a challenge in the sea of black,” she said, but she found colorful outerwear from Olsen, and colorful sportswear by Elliott Lauren and Revue. She bought summer dresses by Fiori di Zucca, and seersucker and other cool fabrics in fresh colors. While applauding feminine looks, she avoided bohemian influences.

She bought utilitarian cotton dressing from Blue Dot, jeans from Seven, Bianca and Bella Elemento from Bella Dahl. She bought summer skirts, in various lengths and silhouettes, and full-length pants, as an alternative to capris.

Although customers are “guarded” about spending and morale is low, Mathis has built business by increasing advertising, especially in TV, she said.

Susan Abbott, owner of Fisheye and Just Add Water, a sportswear store in Grand Cayman Island, shopped with a 25 percent decreased budget for immediates and summer goods. Watching her dollars, she searched for good quality basics and casualwear for a year-round warm climate.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, tourism has been down around 25 percent, she said, forcing her to focus more on local business. For this customer, she bought comfortable, breezy looks by Rafaella and Liz Claiborne. For tourists and expatriates in the area, she bought sleeveless bateau-neck tops and pattern capris for summer, along with a wide variety of jewelry.

View Slideshow