By and  on February 25, 2009

Independent specialty stores are trying to grab market share to survive the troubled economy.

As part of that effort, retailers shopping the MRket show, which took over a ballroom in The Venetian last week, searchedfor apparel that combined freshness and value.

“You have to have compelling product, but not too much of it,” said Wally Naymon of Kilgore Trout in Cleveland, who said he was cutting back buying for fall by more than 20 percent. “We’ve learned to be lean and chase” business later, he said.

Naymon also said he was hoping to use the recession as a time to increase his share of market. “As everybody retracts around you, you have to be aggressive and creative,” he said.

Conceding it was “not fashionable” to shop right now, Naymon said he was looking for sportswear, including “great outerwear pieces and knitwear. We believe there’s opportunity out there.” In addition, he is “rethinking our clothing paradigm. This is the perfect time to rethink our mix.”

Ken Giddon of Rothmans in New York said he had projected a “pretty significant sales drop for the first half, and we’re beating those projections.”

Giddon said he was “slightly optimistic about the return of the regular price business. We’re selling some spring merchandise at regular price.”

At MRket, he was shopping for “products that won’t be killed by huge markdowns” and was seeking vendors willing to be “true partners” that offer compelling items and good margin opportunity. He singled out Cantoni’s hybrid coats as a strong seller last fall and planned to pick up more for this year.

“It certainly is tough out there,” said Fred Derring, principal with the DLS Outfitters buying office. “But most of our stores are holding their own. They’re making efforts to get their open-to-buy under control and working with their landlords to do what they need to do to survive the next nine months.”

Most are “holding back dollars since they don’t know how to project business, but they still have to take care of the fashion junkies,” he said. “We’re suggesting they spend 25 percent of their open-to-buy on really interesting product.” This includes “outerwear that trends into sportswear and odd vests from Kroon.”

The latter, a line of moderate price, easy sport coats, has been popular since its launch a few years ago. However, since the economic collapse better retailers have become intrigued by its relaxed approach to tailoring — not to mention its lower price point. “We have stores that wouldn’t have shopped us two seasons ago placing orders,” said co-founder Michael Wheelan. “There’s an embarrassment about buying a $2,600 coat these days.”

Other exhibitors adjusted their business to keep up with the times by either lowering prices or offering more on a replenishment basis. Ike Behar dropped the prices of black label wovens as it angles to win market share. Nat Nast adjusted to the recession by dropping prices 10 percent on key items and narrowing the collection by 25 percent.

“It’s more focused now,” said Barbara Nast Saletan, vice president of sales and marketing. “We’re doing more immediates, too. A lot of people want that.”

The softer colors of spring apparel were apparent at many booths at MRket as vendors hoped to attract retailers with merchandise for the current season.

Replenishment and basics received additional attention as some retailers planned to trim inventories by relying more on in-stock programs. At Ballin, replenishment makes up almost half of its trouser business, and owner Ron Ballinsky said that number could jump to 60 percent this year. But he warned against meager buying.

“If you buy for a decrease, you’re going to get a decrease,” he said. “Specialty stores are supposed to be special.”

Shirt resource Gitman Brothers also expected to do more business in its made-to-measure and in-stock programs as retailers look to shrink liabilities.

The emphasis on trading down is creating some winners, as well, such as classic sportswear resource Alex Cannon whose moderate prices have newfound appeal.

“Better stores are looking at us,” said Chandresh Mehta, owner of the brand which retails knits from $79. “People are looking for a new opening price point.”

Retailers also considered their strategies for navigating a challenging environment. David Levy of Levy’s in Nashville said that he’s focusing on “inventory levels, expense control and the customer experience — we want to have all three right.”

He cut back on his fall buy about 18 percent and planned to purchase casual jackets that complement the store’s dress clothing assortment, more items from the Robert Graham collection and “lines with both men’s and women’s. And we’re looking for brands that have a story, like Robert Graham, Scott Kay and Agave. Customers like stories.”

Levy said he expects 2009 to be “an interesting” year. “But there are opportunities and the stores with the strongest finances will be here. We plan to be part of that group.”

Sam Cavato, of his namesake store in St. Louis, was pleased his sales in January were only down 4 percent. Although he cut his buying about 20 percent, Cavato bought Pancaldi neckwear, which was “so different that it was special” and was also checking out Raffi’s half-zip cashmere cardigans in bright colors. He planned to work with Nat Nast for sportswear and Luciano Moresco’s Ravazzolo line for suits.

Lizette Chin, show director of MRket, was pleased with the turnout at the show, both in terms of exhibitors and buyers. “ It’s 40 percent bigger than August and the attendance is reflective of that.”

She said that expansion much beyond the 250 brands at this show will be limited. “We want to remain focused and well-balanced,” Chin said. “Maybe we’ll add 30 to 40 more exhibitors, but we’re not looking to be a huge show.”

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