By  on August 22, 2011

The wild stock market gyrations roiling Wall Street aren’t rocking stores on Main Street to the same extent, but many retailers headed to WWDMAGIC are behaving like their shoppers — and being careful about where they put their money.

Kara Moeller, owner of La Contessa in Tucson, Ariz., senses shoppers are nervous about the unsettled economy. “They are buying closer to when they need. They are definitely watching their money,” she said. Securing purchases, she continued, is about “that personal touch and knowing what they already have and trying to work around that versus trying to sell them another pair of black pants they already have.”

Jaime Feldman, buyer for Miami-based A Nose for Clothes, which will soon open its seventh store in Weston, Fla., said, “People don’t shop now, because they have nothing to do. I am fortunate to have a really nice customer that wasn’t so affected by the economy, but she is still cautious about what she spends, and she wants quality. We are trying to give it to her at a good price.”

Despite the shaky economic environment, retailers reported that their ordering budgets aren’t shrinking. For the most part, they said budgets would be equal to or slightly above last year’s. Having survived the worst of the economic downturn, they related stories of business improvement, albeit under the strain of unrelenting uncertainty, lofty unemployment and heavy competition from department stores and online retailers.

Although Susana B. Copplin, president of Maya Palace in Tucson, described the local economic situation as “up and down, like everywhere else,” she added, “It has been better overall than it was last year.”

Her budget for cruise and spring merchandise is bigger than last year’s.

“Last year, I think it was really bad because customers didn’t want to spend money. Even though the stock market has been going up and down, they [are less] afraid to spend, so retailers are willing to experiment a little more with different styles,” she said.

Kelli Burchell, owner of The Emerald Isle Boutique in Las Cruces, N.M., called business at the store “a lot better” than last year. When it comes to new orders, however, she said, “We are still being conservative. Buying is so different now, because I feel like if I need more merchandise, more product, all I have to do is get on the phone and get it.” While she is on the hunt for spring offerings at WWDMAGIC and other trade shows, she often has a hard time finding them.

“It is disappointing when you spend money going to the shows to see the season that is supposed to be there, and they are showing what you have already seen,” she stated.

Keeping a diverse array of prices and making sure there are items affordable for almost all shoppers remain important retail strategies. At La Contessa, Moeller no longer sells pants for $260 and above, but she doesn’t have pants below $50, either. Her shoppers are price conscious, she said, but they aren’t running to the nearest discounter.

At Maya Palace, Copplin said dresses start at $50 but the sweet spot is in the $250-to-$450 range: “I concentrate on something for everybody instead of limiting myself to low prices or in between.”

The retailers haven’t found price hikes from vendors to be a major problem at the moment. At The Emerald Isle, lines that primarily use cotton did elevate prices $1 to $2 per item, but Burchell said, “It hasn’t been so much that it has had to affect the bottom line.”

Price increases have been greater for bridal at Maya Palace, where Copplin has seen brands raise prices as much as 10 to 25 percent.

“There’s always a little bit of resistance,” she said, gauging customer reaction. “Of course, it’s very difficult for us, too, because the overhead is more expensive as well. Sometimes we give customers a break, depending on what they are getting, but sometimes, [when we show] other lines that are less expensive, they go in that direction.”

Unlike in previous seasons, retailers said homing in on a few key trends is more difficult, especially in denim. Feldman said flare styles are particularly hot but that silhouettes are finding audiences across the board.

“Remember when the skinnies came on strong two years ago? You couldn’t put on a boot cut. It looked ridiculous,” she said. “Now, you can wear a flare, a skinny, a baby boot cut, and everything looks great. It’s great for the retailer.”

Moeller wondered if the breadth of denim shapes is confusing to shoppers.

“I believe most people are still thinking [about] the skinny leg, and that is really almost passé,” she said. “That wider leg is very strong in Europe, and it has been for a while. It is going to be anything [in terms of silhouettes.] You are going to see skinny to full leg.”

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