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Speeding Up the Trend Cycle

NEW YORK -- They know they have work to do.<P>After last fall's slump in store traffic and soft spring sales, accessories makers are banking on a better second half to boost their bottom lines. But it's not just prayers for the return of consumer...

NEW YORK — They know they have work to do.

This story first appeared in the July 8, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

After last fall’s slump in store traffic and soft spring sales, accessories makers are banking on a better second half to boost their bottom lines. But it’s not just prayers for the return of consumer confidence that keeps vendors hopeful.

In order to avoid last year’s problems — excess inventory, heavy retail promotions and much-despised chargebacks among them — many firms have tweaked their plans to minimize potential damages and maximize sell-throughs. Among them:

Faster deliveries to timely tap into emerging trends.

Lower opening price points.

More bright colors to stimulate main-floor environments.

“Consumers have moved more toward buying items, and the accessories world has led the way in providing customers with items,” said Ed Bucciarelli, president of the Liz Claiborne Accessory Group. “We see some real items emerging in accessories, such as the long skinny scarves with fringe.”

Typically, basics collections — a black leather handbag, a gray wool scarf — account for the lion’s share of many businesses, but for fall, several vendors stepped up their fashion offering with a wider range of colors and silhouettes to entice spending-shy consumers.

Nathalie Martin Schettini, director of the leather goods division at Judith Jack, said: “June retail sales were soft, which prompted us to step up the color content and offer more specialty items because customers are always attracted to something with more life to it.”

Schettini added that basics traditionally accounted for about 70 percent at Judith Jack’s leather goods division, but this fall the company is looking to level the ratio with fashion items.

Leather goods firm LAI also typically offers more classic shapes and colors, but for fall stepped up its fashion story with semiprecious stones like coral and turquoise, and dye-cut patterns for handbags.

“Because people are changing their trends more frequently, you have to offer more seasonal items,” said Valerie Abrams, LAI’s director of sales.

“Growth will come from colors and items,” said Carolee Friedlander, president and chief executive officer of Carolee Designs, which was purchased last year by Retail Brand Alliance.

Carolee, which is currently sold in 600 department and specialty stores and the firm’s seven freestanding boutiques, is opening seven more units this fall. Stores are planned for the Triangle Town Center in Raleigh, N.C.; The Summit in Birmingham, Ala.; Aspen Grove in Littleton, Colo.; the Promenade at Sagemo in Evesham Township, N.J.; Plaza las Americas in San Juan, Puerto Rico; West County Mall in St. Louis, and The Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

“If you have the human and financial resources, this is the right time [to open stores],” said Friedlander. “It’s the way to build the brand and it will enhance the brand for retailers, too.”

The firm will support the new stores with an advertising campaign and send targeted customers and retail stores a “magalog,” which helps inform and teach customers how and when to wear trends, Friedlander said.

Many vendors agreed that a key challenge will be to react to emerging trends quickly.

“We have worked with our retail partners to develop trend-right products,” said Abe Chehebar, ceo at Accessory Network, who added that this already resulted in selling more merchandise at full price. “Currently, our inventory is down 12 percent from last year on comparable sales.”

Since there was a surplus of inventory last fall, retailers have been more cautious with initial orders for the second half. Many vendors shortened their delivery times to give stores the opportunity to replenish quickly.

“We are going into fall season with clean inventories,” said Patricia Stensrud, vice chairman and ceo at Victoria & Co., which shortened its delivery time by about 30 days. “Instead of people being in an overstocked position with stock keeping units that are not selling, we are offering things far closer to ship.”

At Blair Delmonico, ceo Sophia Jolly said that the company is working with buyers to control inventory levels and raise the rate of merchandise turnover.

“Our policy of taking back out-of-season [inventory] gives the buyer the security of a maintained margin and clean [inventory],” she said.

Michael Schultz, ceo at Lulu Guinness USA, which is opening a second U.S. store on West Third Street in Los Angeles this fall, said, “Stores are buying lean and buying back into things, which is good. We have gotten nice reorders for the early part of fall already.”

Retail prices, Schultz said, were lowered from $295 to $250 and from $250 to $195 in some cases.

“I am trying to pass on some savings from factory to consumers,” he said. “My margins are a little less, but I want to make sure that things sell through.””