By  on June 29, 2009

CHICAGO — Buyers and showroom owners here said there were signs the most difficult days of the recession were behind them as some Midwest retailers reported a slight uptick in shoppers and sales.

At the Chicago’s Women’s and Children’s Apparel Market, which ended its three-day run June 9 at the city’s Apparel Center, showroom owner Karin Berger of Karin Berger Ltd. said many clients seemed relieved and more upbeat.

“The most important thing is that people are smiling again,” said Berger, who noted a more positive mood compared with Chicago’s Stylemax trade show in March. Now buyers are “feeling like they’re going to be in business.”

That’s different than what she encountered in March when stores placed limited orders for fall.

“If they’ve hung in there, they’re going for it,” she said. “I don’t feel like things are as shaky.”

Katy Balabinis, owner and buyer for Katy’s Boutique in suburban Glen Ellyn, Ill., said although business has been soft, she recently noticed more shoppers in her 3,000-square-foot downtown store where best-selling lines include Tribal, Insight, Elliott Lauren and Not My Daughter’s Jeans.

Balabinis looked mostly for fill-in items, particularly dresses, finding some cap-sleeve and three-quarter-length jersey styles from Maggie London, as well as looks from London Times and Suzi Chin.

With an eye out for “economically friendly” pricing, Jenny Gehl, co-owner of Gossip, a women’s speciality store in Mequon, Wis., ordered distinctive cotton holiday tops from Rebecca Beeson, including those with zippers, beading and chiffon trim; brightly colored print mesh tops from Sweet Pea; burnout graphic T-shirts from Jake’s Dry Goods, and chunkier knit and rhinestone-embellished holiday sweaters from Kersh.

Business at the store, which is next to a Starbucks and a nail salon, has been strong, likely helped by its location and its prices, which range from $15 or $20 for a tank or T-shirt to $150 for a dress.

“The prices,” Gehl said, “that’s what gets them to come back.”

Prices also helped drive business at the Koastal Konnection showroom, where tops from Mystery wholesaling for $17 to $33 performed well, along with novelty jackets from XCVI, which wholesale for $40 to $79.

But Charyl Witz, owner of Hunny, a specialty store on Chicago’s boutique-filled North Damen Avenue, said traffic doesn’t always equate to sales. Witz said she’s been hurt by department store markdowns.

“I can’t tell you the number of people who walk in and out of the store,” she said. “The first thing they ask is, ‘Where are the sale items?’”

Witz ordered silk and cotton plaid tops and dresses from Jenny Han, liquid skin jersey turtlenecks, black skinny knit zip pants and high-waisted trousers from Cynthia Steffe, and houndstooth coats, silk dresses and faux mink vests with a satin ties from Beth Bowley. On the accessories side, Witz liked animal print handbags from Lionel.

Overall, buyers were eager for color, said Susan Glick, vice president of women’s apparel at Merchandise Mart Properties, which operates the market. “What I saw was a real move to get color into their stock. Color is going to make a difference.”

Glick also noticed the importance of accessories, in that women may be more likely to purchase a handbag or belt to perk up an old outfit.

Tracy Buttron, vice president at Karin Berger Ltd., took to the road to generate business this year, gaining new accounts in Omaha and Lincoln, Neb., where she said a handful of new boutiques have opened.

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