By and and  on August 28, 2012

LAS VEGAS — Price check.

As retailers seek every edge they can get to beat the struggling economy and the competition, unique merchandise is increasingly important — as long as the price is right for consumers. Retailers attending the string of trade shows here last week — which included WWDMAGIC, Project, Pool and ENK Vegas — praised brands for adjusting to the new reality.

When Suburban Soul’s outpost in the blue-collar town of Enumclaw, Wash., closed recently, its former employee Bridget Peterson, who worked at Gap and Nordstrom as well over a 15-year retail career, learned her lesson: She’d have to bring in cheaper merchandise if her new venture, Bridget’s Boutique, was to thrive. So she turned to brands like Miss Me and Vigoss that offer plenty under $100 at retail — and the formula has worked so far. “I’ve been open for a month and did $20,000 last month,” she said. Asked about the holiday season, she added, “I think it will be good. [The store’s selection] is priced to move.”

Donna Lee, assistant to the owner of Raggs Boutique in Chicago, noticed customers are shopping, but not for just anything. “You want something nice and comfortable, but you want something affordable. If my cost is $100, they are not willing to pay $200 or $300 for a simple dress. For a shift dress, if we charge $40 to $50 at retail, we are fine,” she said. “We are finding things in that [range.]”

Perhaps partly because of the availability of reasonably priced goods and partly because the worst of the recession is hopefully in the rearview mirror, buyers walking around WWDMAGIC at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the other trade shows seemed slightly more positive about their outlooks and were convinced they had a pretty good grasp on consumers’ shopping habits. Barbara Hays, a manager and buyer at Junkman’s Daughter in Atlanta, said, “We are doing a little better this year. Maybe we are taking a few less chances and being more conservative. Our customer is more conservative now.”

Kathi Huntington, owner of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based CedarCrate.com, was searching for clothes and accessories for children and mothers to go into a brick-and-mortar extension of her growing e-commerce business that she’s planning to open in the suburbs of Minneapolis. “In our area, the boutiques are making it. They are not going out of business,” she said. “They are high-end retailers, over $200 [at retail] for the most part. People are shopping at them. In the last two-and-a-half years, retail space is full [on the streets.]”

If there is going to be a hiccup at retail, store owners suggested it could come from the upcoming election. Sylvia Anderson, owner of Pink stores in Boise, Idaho, and Claremont, Calif., said, “Every election year, everybody holds onto their money because they want to know what direction the country is going in.” While she might have sought out dresses from $75 to $125 five years ago, Anderson said she’s homing in on dresses from $38 to $42 to suit the current climate. Overall, she said, shoppers are “looking for a bargain.…I try to offer a good product at a really good price so they feel good about purchasing something.”

At the Las Vegas shows, a change in the opening day schedules — Project and Pool started on Aug. 20, and WWDMAGIC, which usually starts on the same day, began the day after — added a wrinkle that could impact what stores carry. “It was interesting to walk Project first to see those very aggressive and forward lines and what is emerging, so that when we got back to some of the arenas we do play in we had a little different point of view,” said Karen Delaney, who buys for 20 of Apricot Lane’s 74 stores.

For example, she specified that she’d be testing more subtle neon pieces than she would have otherwise. “It made us catch some of those trends on the front side rather than chase them in the season,” she said. “I know that I made some decisions differently.”

Women’s fashion brands carried prints and color into another season, albeit with adjustments to keep the trend fresh. A growing number of designers embraced technology by offering patterns that were transferred digitally onto fabric via high-end printers. The palette took a softer turn with shades that evoked sherbet, but pops of color were also evident in vivid hues of blue and green. While denim designers borrowed liberally from the color spectrum used in sportswear, they also returned to the authentic ruggedness of blue jeans.

Los Angeles’ Lovemarks discovered that retailers were willing to shell out 10 to 20 percent more for the opportunity to be ahead of what’s on the market. “All of our customers want to see the latest,” said Lovemarks co-owner Sam Paik, who fared well with a blazer emblazoned with a green floral digital print ($35 at wholesale).

In the contemporary field at WWDMAGIC, vendors realized that buyers weren’t so price-conscious as long as the clothing made a statement.

Canada’s Moon Apparel gave a new spin to lace in organza eyelet cut into below-the-knee pencil skirts whose lining stopped a bit shorter for a peekaboo effect. Los Angeles’ Karen Kane gentrified motorcycle jackets and vests in black-and white-striped ponte and blue ikat for $110 and $98 at wholesale, respectively. Andrew Marc from New York stood out with a $79 cobalt blue eyelet dress that revealed a contrast lining. Xinnatex, a first-time exhibitor from New York, received a positive response for its open-front asymmetric jacket, blending tan polyester wool with black leather cutouts at the wrist ($185 wholesale). Max and Cleo, of Vernon, Calif., melded different trends into one dress so that the piece could speak for itself. One style that did well was a fuchsia sleeveless number that integrated both lace and pleating for $87 wholesale.

In WWDMAGIC’s juniors section, the proliferation of Los Angeles-based vendors that specialize in trendy pieces and quick turnarounds has caused a number of brands to rethink their positioning in order to corner a niche in the market. At Esley Collection, senior account executive Eunice Kim said a new designer, Janice Kim, was brought in to help it appeal to a younger audience and pointed to studded collars and back slits in tops as elements Kim has added to the line. Kim attributed Esley’s 20 to 30 percent growth this year to the change. “The look is younger and more fun. In the past, we had been known for conservative designs,” she said.

Very J has revamped its offering to become more simple and sophisticated, according to Isabell Kim, who handles sales and public relations for the brand. Very J’s top seller was $16.75 scalloped shorts in fake leather, although an $18.75 tunic with stud accents and cutouts in the collar and a $22.75 wrap dress with studs on the cuffs were also well received. At Ina, designer Elly Sung was focused on catching the trends as they hit. “Sequins are doing well on crop tops to fitted dresses to hot pants,” she said, singling out a sequin crop top for $16.75.

Juniors brands also tried to catch retailers’ eyes with new fits. Denice Wright, head merchandiser of Boom Boom Jeans, said a curvy fit launched in the beginning of the year has really taken off, so the company decided to spread the fit further across its repertoire by introducing it in colored styles. At YMI Jeans, executive sales assistant Naomi Rodriguez said Wanna Betta Butt jeans styles, which are priced at $16 and meant to lift and shift with contour seams on the behind, were “doing great.” Umgee USA launched a contemporary plus-size line with 70 styles that general manager Stan Park estimated could be as much as 15 to 20 percent of the Los Angeles-based company’s sales at the end of this year. “There’s a huge market,” he said.

At the International Swimwear/Activewear Market (ISAM) section of the show, buyers headed to California-based companies like Manhattan Beachwear and RAJ Manufacturing for printed bikinis and one-piece suits in a range of price points. Boosting traffic were regular runway shows that featured trends such as polka dots, colorblocking and black-and-white graphic prints. New to the show were several vendors such as Beach Bash, Beauty & the Beach and Girl Howdy that specialize in retro-style bikinis, one-pieces and playsuits.

In the Accessories section, key trends included envelope clutches, studded handbags, neon belts and mixed material statement necklaces. Booths offering pieces in the $9 to $20 wholesale range were the most crowded, be it for delicate wire and stone jewelry, scarves or hats.

NEXT: Specifics on the Shows >>


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