NEW YORK — Getting fresh merchandise into stores and being faster and first to market were the overriding themes at a recent seminar sponsored by the American Apparel & Footwear Association and consultant Emanuel Weintraub.

"The customer today is time-pressed, so the need for new and more exciting product is more important than ever before," said Joe Feczko, executive vice president of Federated Department Stores, who was one of the featured speakers at the event. "The traditional customer as we know it is gone. She’s diversified, yet people are slow to change."

Feczko stressed that by doing things faster, it will help increase sales, because "for each month saved from the product development cycle, a month is added to the sales life."

Being first to market with new, interesting product has its advantages — in any industry, he noted.

"Think about the Palm Pilot — the competition is still trying to catch up," he said. "Think of AOL. Even with all their problems and competition they still have 26 million households in the U.S. today. First product to market has 100 percent market share and because of that you can set fair retail prices, which will improve your margin."

At Federated, Feczko said the company has reduced its cycle time for its private label brand INC from eight weeks to four weeks, delivering fresh product to the stores on a monthly basis.

"I think the customer has given us credit for that," he said. "Still, new product on a monthly basis has had an impact on production, quality, design and marketing, but the benefits at the end of the day are worthwhile."

Don Baum, vice president of group manufacturing at Liz Claiborne Inc., another featured speaker at the seminar held last Tuesday at the Princeton Club here, said if companies don’t move faster, they will simply be run over by the competition. To be faster, the company introduced LizQwik, a program that sliced certain collections’ production times from 46 weeks to 14 weeks.

"At Liz Claiborne, the time for the design conceptual to the in-store was just too long and the need for speed is here now. We had to figure out ways to do things faster because we were missing opportunities," Baum said. "We do some 12,000 styles a year in 70 million units, so we can’t take all of our product and do it in 14 weeks. But that’s what we did in part of the collection."But getting a massive company like Liz Claiborne to run faster wasn’t easy, so Baum said it formed a team of sales people, designers and manufacturers devoted to the program. Another important step meant empowering more people to make decisions without having to get layers of management approval like before.

Baum cited Zara as an example that’s winning in this fast-to-market game, as it constantly flows new merchandise into the stores that’s right on target.

"Entrepreneurial spirit, that’s what we’re looking for," Baum said. "People that are willing to take risks and take bold steps and to think differently. At Liz Claiborne, it’s not easy because we get so set in our ways that it’s tough to break those paradigms. But we’ve broken a number and we have to continue to break more."

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