By  on May 16, 2006

NEW YORK — Keeping an ear to the ground is essential to finding new lines, and now more than ever, retailers are using those listening skills to figure out what their customers want.

That was the consensus among people attending Designers at the Essex House, a show that focused on fall and finished a four-day run May 2.

"A lot of communication is necessary with the stores," said designer Kevan Hall, who was in from Los Angeles to show his signature collection. "It's all about customer service and finding out what the customer's needs are and responding to them."

Retailers and show resources seemed to agree that well-thought-out customer service is the key to building sales.

Anne Friday, a buyer for Razook's, a three-store operation based in Greenwich, Conn., said her business is better than it was last year at this time. "We're taking a closer look at our markdowns and at our customers in terms of what they want," she said.

Friday has not seen any dramatic changes in how her shoppers are spending their money. "Our customer looks for something a little different that's still timeless and classic," she said.

Shopping with general merchandise manager Lessie Harris, Friday said they were looking for eveningwear and special occasion dresses, especially longer ones. Hall and Catherine Regehr were two show resources they checked out.

Sifting through the racks of eveningwear at Mark Heister, Marilyn Goldman, owner of Albertson Filly's, a boutique in Albertson, N.Y., said, "This month, we squeaked it out to meet our numbers. Some are spending less, some are spending more. The numbers are there — who cares how it got there."

But Linda Heister, who was showing the collection, acknowledged that stores are coming up with new ideas to meet their business plans. "I think everyone is working really hard," she said. "Everyone is really focused. They understand that they can't be so cavalier. They have to be very focused."

Having picked up a few new accounts and "substantially" increased orders with some existing accounts at the show, Heister said, "Service is very important to the stores we do business with. Resources that deliver in a timely manner are doing very well."One trend she noticed was a move to more casual looks for eveningwear. Bias-cut, wide-legged pants, a ruffled top and a silk wool bark cloth jacket — all wholesaling around $600 and $650 — were some of the most popular looks, Heister said. Another favorite with shoppers was the $440 satin Judy jacket, named after Judy Garland. "It's [for the] young, old, fat, skinny," Heister said.

Hall was surprised by the reaction he received to a ballerina-length dress made of Lyon lace. He initially designed it through the French Textiles Association, which gave him the pricy material to use. With a $6,000 retail price tag, Hall did not expect many buyers to be interested in the dress. He said "everyone liked it" and a few thought they could sell it by having it in the store, but were not willing to buy it up front. Hall made an exception for one or two: "Desperate Housewives" star Marcia Cross borrowed the dress for a fashion shoot.

That was just one of the examples that showed how the label's loyal customers are buying "very carefully," he said. Trunk shows remain an important part of the business, and 40 are booked through June. Evening gowns and a tie-front taffeta dress with bracelet-length sleeves were in demand at the Essex House, Hall said.

David Goodman, the designer of David Goodman for Buonuomo, was upbeat about picking up three new accounts, especially since "one can make your show." His Italian-made cashmere knits and featherweight fur-lined coats were some of the better-selling styles. A cashmere cable mink-trimmed stole at $5,000, a fur-trimmed trenchcoat sweater at $3,800 and a double-faced cashmere coat with Russian sable trim at $10,000 were in demand at the show.

"I've been doing a lot of business with trunk shows," Goodman said. Stores don't have to order it or buy it. They just wait to sell it. And there's a low rate of return."

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