By  on November 24, 2008

Anger, denial and acceptance underscored this month’s market, as vendors and retailers struggled with the reality of a troubled economy and women’s apparel prices that plunged 2.2 percent in October, the largest on record for the month.

November traditionally is a smaller market that bridges the gap for immediate merchandise, last-minute reviews of spring-summer buys and a reevaluation of back-to-school programs. It also has become an increasingly demanding venue for additional markdown money, as fewer shoppers create an overabundance of inventory.

The majority of orders have not been completed, even though longer lead times are required because most sourcing and production is done in Asia. The somber mood also was reflected by the fear that retailers would be cutting spring buys by as much as 25 percent or more, and that some brands could be dropped from a major store’s matrix. A main reason: proprietary store labels and private label merchandise is becoming a standard cost-cutting measure as the viability of mature brands, low-profile names and poor-performing labels are reexamined.

Although the turnout of major department and specialty stores, as well as boutiques, was about the same as a year ago, vendors said buying teams were smaller and reduced the number of market days. Stores such as Macy’s, Kohl’s, Target, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus had smaller representation. Dillard’s and numerous specialty boutiques did not make the trip. Showrooms on Madison Avenue were generally sparse and, as a result, many wholesalers are spending extra time on the road in an attempt to get orders from different regions.

“I don’t know what to expect,” said Rebecca Apsan, owner of La Petite Coquette in Manhattan. “People are afraid and so am I. I’ve cut back on spring receipts and even Christmas. And for the first time in 30 years, I’m having promotions, like buy one and get the second item half off. People are being very cautious about spending.”

Pam Fitzpatrick, owner of The Candlelight Shop in Ridgefield, Conn., said, “No, I won’t be buying as much as a year ago. I’m not certain what the future will be, unfortunately, because of the economy. But business has been OK and we’re holding our own. My customers are not price conscious, but they are buying very selectively.”

Addressing the wholesale outlook in a tough climate, Marcia Leeds, chief executive officer of Richard Leeds International, described the market ambience as “nightmarish,” saying she had only one word of advice when discussing price points: “Hide.”

“Buyers are on a fence right now,” Leeds said. “They really want a great item at a great price. It’s been pretty tough, but retailers seemed more optimistic than they were in October. What’s booking well is anything that features updated [novelty] artwork and silhouettes, but not necessarily new fabrics.”

Richard Murray, president of Wacoal America, the U.S. arm of Wacoal Japan, said, “Initial conversations about the business climate were gloomy. Everyone was concerned. Some [retailers] were shocked by the size of the October sales loss. There were some signs of panic and all had a very pessimistic outlook. However, the reviews of the new [spring] line were much more positive. The main purpose of the market is to show new product.”

Murray noted that items that received good reaction included a safari print in Wacoal’s Awareness Collection, a new full-figure, cut-and-sew bra called Delicate Notion and a push-up bra with a matching garter brief in a leopard print called Flirt by b. tempted by Wacoal.

Murray said Wacoal’s strategy is to be proactive and defensive at the same time. “In today’s business environment, our consumer is looking to buy something she is comfortable with and is a good value,” he said. “Our key carryover styles are performing very well. Exciting new products will continue to do well and are very important. The secondary styles have the shortest life and are under the most pressure.”

James Martino, president and ceo of Denton, Tex.-based Russell-Newman Inc., said, “To say there is not genuine concern in the market would be unrealistic. There is a great concern that the consumer is just not shopping. Even sales are not pulling in the traffic that is desired and that obviously has the retailer very nervous. Our strategy is a combination of key items that are known sellers, but giving them a new twist as well as adding new items. Any vendor that does not offer newness in a market like this is digging a deeper grave.”

Martino noted that there are pockets where business is better than other categories. “November market is the slowest market of the year,” he said. “The greatest successes will be items that are tried and true. Underwear continues to be good, and our Karen Neuburger [classic sleepwear] continues to exceed its competition. We also had some new loungewear that had good results.”

Seth Morris, president of the Carole Hochman Design Group, said, “I was pleased that the stores largely focused on product. That being said, there are certainly serious concerns about the next six to seven weeks and to what level Christmas will materialize. I think there are even greater concerns about spring 2009 regarding review of orders and proper delivery flow, which is critical to all. But most stores seem to recognize we are in this together, and that shared responsibility and accountability needs to be the order of the day if we are all to come out the other side in better shape than we went in.”

“Our line strategy is always to have a mix of proven, sharply priced key items and new fashion styles with a ‘wow’ factor, and that did not change for this market,” said Michelle Clark, executive vice president of merchandising at Movie Star Inc. “We were definitely more price conscious this market with our fashion. Our new product introduction, the Demisole, was a highlight for us. We are expecting sizeable orders from many of our large customers and meaningful tests from others. Buyers definitely felt that the product is a ‘solution’ garment.”

The Demisole is a cropped version of a camisole to be worn under plunging necklines.

Robert Zarabi, president and ceo of Chatsworth, Calif.-based Felina Lingerie, said he felt a sense of “urgency” because of the difficult economic and retail climate.

“Even in tough times, consumers will still shop if the product in the stores gives them a reason to shop,” he said. “We feel that, in today’s conditions, which will probably last through 2009, the customer is looking for everyday, wearable product but with a fashion element to it. I would say the [retailer] mood was stressful, but they certainly were looking for product that will boost sales. There is a definite sense of urgency to be on inventory plan and exit slow-performing styles.”

Zarabi said despite the negative climate, he believed it was the right time to introduce a new brand, called Piege, which means “trapped” in French. “Reaction to the Piege product was very positive, much as it was during our previews in August,” Zarabi said. “What has changed, obviously, from August to November, is the economy has gone from bad to horrible. September comps were the worst of the year and then October was worse than that. This has changed the mind-set of the retailer when it comes to new product for 2009. We knew it would be a tough sell, but we felt so strongly about the Piege product and had such positive previews, we moved forward.”

He added that distribution to major stores will be limited, and the company will provide sales assistance and will be supported by a national and co-op advertising campaign. Bras will retail from $68 to $80.

Despite the outlook for Piege, a spokeswoman for Felina said late Friday that the line will not be launched next year. She did not elaborate.

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