To help keep the sector from losing ground, vendors are combating a tough fiscal landscape by using several techniques to reach out to current clients and to gain new ones.

Women’s sportswear and dress vendors are a hearty bunch. In the face of a challenging market over the past two years, the group has adjusted on several fronts to maintain momentum. Many have increased their exposure with marketing through catalogs, moved production overseas to help cut prices and expanded their targeted customer base with broader offerings.

In addition to producing the right product at the right price, the smaller players in the market need to offer all the specialized services they can to their retail customers to combat not only economic doldrums, but stiff competition that’s also gunning for a customer whose moods and tastes are always in flux.

  • The Catalog Craze: Vendors at WWDMAGIC this year are by no means only appearing at trade shows to reach out to retailers. Increasingly, catalogs are a key avenue for communication between vendors and their clients.

    “People can’t always come to New York and see what we offer,” noted Morris Elyaszadeh, co-owner of Manhattan-based Lily & Taylor.

    Accordingly, the firm, which has in the past sent out two catalogs annually, will produce three or possibly four this year. Currently, the firm gets about 80 percent of its business from catalog orders with the remainder coming from trade shows.

    Nina Tolentino, president and designer of Irwindale, Calif.-based A Touch of Class Clothing, has also been expanding her firm’s catalog, though it has always been an important element throughout the company’s 18-year lifespan.

    “It’s a way to get ahold of our retailers who buy from us who don’t want to travel to the shows,” said Tolentino.

    About half of the firm’s business is driven through catalog orders, though all of the accounts receive a book. Tolentino puts a special emphasis on packaging her catalog. It’s sent out in a black binder along with a price list, line sheet and swatches because, as she noted, “I, for one, will not buy from a catalog unless I can see the fabric.”However, catalogs have also been used as a means to build relationships and support retail clients who have already seen the clothes.

    “We do send lots of catalogs to our customers so they can use and distribute them as a mailer for the stores’ customers,” said Daniel Saadia, president of DB Sport, based in Los Angeles. DB Sport also helps retailers market its wares with posters and selected merchandise that is priced specifically for promotions.

    “They’re happy to get that service from us,” said Saadia. “They feel that partnership with us. [We will do] whatever it takes for us to show that we’re behind them and with them…especially because we’re fighting with imports.”

    While it has been a challenge, DB Sport has over the past two years managed to increase earnings by 3 to 5 percent, despite a drop in margins.

  • Gone Global: The main impetus for producing abroad is, of course, to pull down prices. China seems to be the market of choice, and many expect this will only become more the case once textile and apparel quotas, now restricting the market, are lifted in 2005.

    Zoheir Aghravi, president of Avalin, which is based in Manhattan, noted, “We used to be a domestic company; now we’re doing a lot of importing.” The firm has upped its business with overseas suppliers, from nil three years ago to about 60 percent of its total today. Avalin imports mostly silk and rayon, while using domestic fine-gauge cotton.

    Isabel Sokiryanski, of Garland, Tex.-based Isabel, said she’s moved some of her production to China two years ago. The move helped cover the expansion of the company and enables her, through lower prices, “to reach more people, so more customers can afford to buy the line.”

    Slashing retail prices by around 20 percent at Isabel drove volume up by 25 to 30 percent.

    While the price tag is very important, Sokiryanski noted the look and quality also have to be there.

    Foreign ports of call, long familiar to the larger players in apparel manufacturers, may be more important to smaller firms now, but some are still not looking abroad.DB Sport has fought against this tide, and after 9/11, the firm turned away from imported material. Since 2000, the firm’s revenue has risen by 25 percent in part because it has been able to charge more for its U.S.-made products.

    “Everything we use is 100 percent made in the U.S.A.,” said DB’s Saadia. “We say that to our buyers, and since we’re proud of that, we discuss it.”

  • A Wider Base: In the hopes of reaching new customers, exhibitors at WWDMAGIC will also be offering assortments that extend into more categories.

    While Angel Design Corp. of Great Neck, N.Y., already ships to specialty stores and boutiques with moderate customers, vice president Arthur Cakiryan said, “I basically diversified this year so I could sell to everyone. We’re a more youthful line instead of misses’.”

    The firm’s line grew to 100 pieces this year from 80 to 90 last year and draws from an expanded color palette. New items include capri pants, round-neck sweaters and collar sweaters.

    Denim was also added to the line in capris and tops. With these changes, Cakiryan said he hopes to drive Angel’s volume up into the $5 million to $10 million range from the $2 million to $3 million it does now.

    Avalin’s Aghravi said his company has moved from just marketing sweaters into offering slacks and blouses as well. “We’re trying to get more business and it’s working out,” he noted. Twenty percent of Avalin’s business now comes from T-shirts, blouses and pants, and that move has given the top line a roughly 30 percent boost.

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