By  on April 17, 2009

ATLANTA — The prevailing mood was “down but not out” at last month’s apparel market at AmericasMart.

Buyers pared their budgets but were receptive to fresh, creative product and agreed keeping lower inventories and buying closer to season are critical as a hedge against the recession.

Vendors, meanwhile, eased prices and payment terms to encourage orders. Contemporary apparel and accessories were among the strongest categories at the three-day show that ended March 30, and immediates with major visual interest took precedent among buyers.

“Coming into the show, I felt like I was going grocery shopping after eating Thanksgiving dinner,” said Michael Evangelisti, owner of five Bermuda Bay resort shops in New Orleans, Miami, Charleston, S.C., and two in Newport, R.I. “But I ended up writing [orders for] some interesting things that were pretty special. It was certainly not a bustling market, but there was some life.”

Evangelisti, who hadn’t shopped AmericasMart in about four years, picked up summer dresses and sportswear from Donna Morgan and Alberto Makali, whittling his budget by about 20 percent. He’s also dropped about 10 lines that weren’t moving.

Evangelisti said vendors were willing to work more with him by switching out goods that weren’t selling well and offering lower prices.

“People always say that buyers and vendors have a partnership,” he said. “Truthfully, this is the first time I really feel like the majority of vendors and retailers are actually working together. We used to be adversaries almost, but now it really is a kinder, gentler relationship.”

Instead of pursuing new customers, many retailers were working to cultivate existing accounts.

“Trying to get new customers right now is hard,” said Julie Routenberg, owner of two modern bridge Potpourri stores in the Atlanta area. “I’m just concentrating on nurturing the ones that are loyal to my stores.”

Routenberg bought sportswear and dresses from Gender Bias, Linda Lundström and Lafayette 148; plenty of knits, and was particularly impressed with jackets, especially in casual knit styles, from lines such as Damask. She picked up Sandy Duftler belts to add easy updates to existing looks and plans to focus more on denim with lines such as Beija-Flor, Vitamina and Cambio.

Routenberg’s fall budget was down about 15 percent, and she said she bought “broad and wide, not narrow and deep” in order to keep inventory down, adding that her vendors are being more flexible with minimum orders and are cutting to order.

“If it’s a ‘wow’ piece, I’ll buy it, but it really has to jump off the rack at me,” she said. “Right now, it’s all about keeping a balance between low bridge prices and high bridge prices. My customer may not buy a $900 jacket, but a $500 will sell if it pops.”

She noted the importance of bright colors and bold stripes, and said day dresses still sell strongly, particularly when paired with boots and tights.

Lisa Adams, principal of Therapy with Lisa Adams, said that traffic and business were down in her showroom during the March show and reported that buyers were writing closer to season and relying on immediate deliveries.

“Buyers are becoming very price-conscious,” Adams said. “The contemporary customer is requesting the lower price points as well. The key to weathering the recession is to keep overhead to a minimum and to supply the customers with those low price points.”

Adams plans to host special events in her showroom and offer buyers incentives to drum up interest.

Bradley Foster, owner of Bradley in Mobile, Ala., stuck with core lines such as Lafayette 148, Fabrizio Giani and Belford, and responded to more feminine shapes and fabrics. She wrote orders for Suzi Rohr belts, especially those at lower price points.

“I really like longer sweaters right now,” Foster said. “I think we’re getting away from the swing shape.”

Foster said she’s buying closer to season and carrying less inventory in order to cope with the tumultuous economy, as well as holding special events to help nurture her customer base.

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