By and  on February 17, 2010

LAS VEGAS — A modest boost in business encouraged retailers at MAGIC Marketplace on Tuesday to open their wallets just a bit.

The prevailing hope during the trade fair’s opening day here was that a promising start to the year, which carried over from more positive fourth-quarter sales, meant the worst was over as the economy struggles for traction.

Many merchants, focused on controlling inventories and newness, said they were conservatively increasing their open-to-buy for fall in an effort to catch the wave of improved business trends.

Major stores, including Macy’s and Belk, were aiming to build momentum on the uptick in business.

Kevin Morrissey, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s for Macy’s, characterized the retailer’s early spring business as “relatively good,” led by short-sleeve knits, activewear, basic furnishings and the branded Polo business. “So we’re off to a fairly good start.”

Morrissey said he was “still going to be cautious” and was seeking “new and different” items that will give customers “a reason to purchase.” Although inventories are still down from their pre-recession levels, “they’re planned according to sales. We’re conservative, but not lean,” he said, adding he was shopping MAGIC for back-to-school and fall merchandise.

Men’s was “very strong” for Belk Inc. last fall and “we feel good about this year,” said David Zant, executive vice president and gmm of men’s. “Right now, our customer is responding and we’re in a position to rebound.”

Among the bestsellers for the chain have been suit separates, denim and men’s sportswear.

At MAGIC, Zant said he planned to “build a good foundation in premium denim and supporting tops to coordinate.”

Zant said Belk’s inventories were “still down slightly” from last year, “but freshness is what’s important and the receipts we have coming in are very productive. So, we’re leaner, but we’re very focused on growing.”

Based on The Doneger Group’s seasonal men’s overview, key opportunities in the men’s and young men’s markets for fall will center around rugged casualwear. Outdoors-inspired looks such as plaids or denim shirts, chunky sweaters, nondenim bottoms, utility jackets, vintage neckwear and slouchy caps were among the items expected to connect with consumers this fall.

“We’re in a casual cycle,” said Tim Bess, men’s fashion-trend analyst for The Doneger Group, but one that is more “refined and polished” than in the past.

For women, skinny jeans, denim leggings and embellishments such as studding, buckles and exposed zippers remained prevalent, along with leather pieces, rock ’n’ roll- and motorcycle-inspired looks and draped, tuniclike T-shirts.

“We do buy much closer in, that’s our model,” said Jeannie Seo, a buyer for TJX’s Winners chain. “We buy closer and smarter because we have to.”

Customers “are feeling better, and my budget’s a little better than it was last year, but I’m all about immediates,” said Shelly Walters, who opened her Reno-based boutique, Accessorize, seven years ago. “I just can’t afford to place an order six or seven months out and have a trend change or die.”

The trade fair, which is being held at the Las Vegas and Mandalay Bay convention centers, continues through Thursday. The shows were split for the first time, with the WWDMAGIC women’s show sharing space at the Las Vegas Convention Center with a new footwear show, FN Platform. MAGIC Man and Project were relocated to Mandalay Bay.

Although there were a couple of problems early at the men’s shows — retailers arriving before 8 a.m. were unable to obtain their badges or enter the floor for early appointments — the MAGIC staff quickly addressed the issues, and by the time the shows opened officially at 9 a.m., most stores had registered and were able to start working.

Lana Cain-Krauter, president of Bealls in Florida, said business in her market area remains “challenging, but we made a full court press to be the unique midtier offering in Florida. We’re working hard not to be J.C. Penney or Kohl’s.”

Bealls customers love the outdoors and the company has found success with activewear, golfwear and other sportswear for men. As a result, Cain-Krauter was shopping MAGIC for items in those areas. “We’re looking to maximize the Florida lifestyle,” she said. “That’s our focus on this trip.”

She slightly increased her budget for fall after inventories got so low during the holidays that Bealls lost some potential sales.

Scott Collins, vice president and gmm of the Baltimore-based urban chain, DTLR, said, “Business is really good. If you extract out the snow factor, there’s really pent-up demand and our consumer is out there spending. He wants fresh gear, and our biggest problem is not getting enough product to the stores fast enough.”

In apparel, collections from Cavi, Rocawear, Levi’s, Parish and Akoo have been robust sellers. Collins said footwear, particularly the Nike Penny shoe, which retails for $200, along with boots and other shoes from Creative Rec, Nike and Polo have been strong.

Collins said he was seeking exclusive products. “We’re shuffling the deck on brands and seeking special-make products that separate us from the competition.”

He said he was being “aggressive” in his open-to-buy for fall since “inventories are so lean, it’s ridiculous. We have a great feeling about 2010. We expect there will be some more contraction in the marketplace and the better retailers will flourish.”

Doug Ewert, president of Men’s Wearhouse, said, “Business isn’t good and business isn’t terrible. We’re selling a lot of suits. We picked up a lot of market share in the last year.”

Suit sales are still highly promotional, he said, as consumers seek “a compelling value proposition” before purchasing.

“We think 2010 will be similar to 2009 in our category,” Ewert said, noting that “men’s tailored clothing will be the last to recover. We’re in a category still suffering from 10 percent unemployment, and it will take job creation [before we see a true rebound].”

The retailer was looking for immediates and fall, said gmm Scott Norris, in both tailored and sportswear categories. Inventory levels were “under control,” he said.

At the women’s show, a continuing trend was placing orders much closer to the selling season, with some smaller retailers sticking with goods for immediate sale.

“Things are improving in retail on the budget and the consumer side,” said Laura Smith, a buyer for closeout retailer Big Lots. “Inventory is still tight, and manufacturers are making less now because retailers aren’t buying as much.”

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