LAS VEGAS — Play it safe, but not too safe. That’s the strategy of retailers at MAGIC here as they navigate the recession.

Although some stores reported a slight thaw in consumer spending — even selling some early spring merchandise at full price — they’re watching their inventories and expenses.

For men’s and women’s, the quest for value was driving retail orders.

“We’re seeing traction at the lower end, where we’re offering value, and the higher end, where we have newness,” said Steve Lawrence, general merchandise manager of men’s wear for J.C. Penney Co. Inc. Merchandise that is selling offers “salable newness, nothing tricky.”

Lawrence was shopping MAGIC for items that fit that bill, including argyle sweaters that were “understandable, but not what everybody already has.”

Overall, Lawrence said he was “optimistic” about fall, not because he expects a surge in business, but because retailers are “better prepared” than they were last year.

Kevin Morrissey, gmm of men’s for Macy’s East,searched for hot items and new classifications. “Customers respond to new ideas,” he said. “We’re looking to add some twists to our core items.” He expects fashion outerwear, woven shirts and fleece to connect with customers for fall.

Scott Collins, gmm of Downtown Locker Room, said sales rose almost 4 percent in January and are up more than 40 percent in February. Although shoes continue to drive sales, apparel is up 13 percent. He attributed the rise to a focus on proprietary lines from vendors such as Coogi.

He sought outerwear in “layering weights,” vests and bottoms that are “a little more tricked up,” such as those with extreme washes or distressed details. The young men’s and juniors chain is not cutting back on orders and is willing to take risks. “If we’re wrong, we’re going to be wrong with conviction,” he said.

Scott Norris, gmm of The Men’s Wearhouse Inc., reported that the company’s suit business was robust, albeit driven by a buy-one-get-one-free promotion.He also said there were no plans to cut back on purchasing. “We have large buying power and we’re looking to take advantage of that with quantity.”

For fall, Norris anticipates suit sales will be strong, along with dress shirts and pants. On the sportswear end, he revealed that Men’s Wearhouse is converting its MW Tux stores (formerly After Hours) to Men’s Wearhouse & Tux and will add denim, T-shirts and a little tailored clothing to appeal to the younger customer who shops in these stores for his rental tuxedo needs.

Retailers shopping the condensed show at the Las Vegas Convention Center looked for updated classics that will offer customers “the right mix of newness and familiarity,” said David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group. “This is the time for tried and true trends. The trick is to refresh and tweak them.”

For men, that includes hybrid sport coats, muted plaids, argyle sweaters, vests, military-inspired outerwear, bright colors, cardigans and subtle details. For young men, extreme washes, Eighties and Nineties prints, transitional jackets, rugged country influences, plaid hoodies, V-necks or Y-necks and exploded graphics are expected to be strong for fall.

International buyers were walking the convention center.

“We are looking for fitted T-shirts, smaller sizes because the bigger styles don’t fit many people in Japan,” said Manabu Shirakana, a buyer for Nano Universe in Tokyo. “We’re especially looking for casual, L.A. styles.”

Dresses, particularly in colorful prints and dyed batik, were still a big category, especially long maxidresses.

Most buyers were reluctant to place early orders, but many said they would buy small quantities before the end of the show. They were looking for retail price points well under $100, with $60 or less being the most desirable.

“At $50 or less, people just pick up what they like and buy it. At more than $50, they’ll think twice about it,” said Wendy Litowitz Frederick, whose store in Charleston, S.C., caters to tourists.

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