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At Atelier, Retailers Test Innovative Strategies

Specialty store retailers attending Atelier at the Doubletree Times Square in Manhattan discussed their own means for resourcefulness.

Aside from ordering colorful, unusual sportswear that shoppers can mix with items they already own, retailers attending Atelier at the Doubletree Times Square in Manhattan discussed their own means for resourcefulness.

Staging in-store cabaret nights, launching a buy local effort with area merchants, giving consumers honest opinions about their selections and brown-bagging lunches are some of the ways buyers are dealing with what continues to be a difficult retail environment.

To rev up sales in recent months, Lynn Dell, owner of Off Broadway, an Upper West Side boutique, has set up an outpost at a nearby weekly Sunday flea market where shoppers are encouraged to also visit the store. Having a resale department, on-site alterations and a cabaret night in the shop helps to keep customers coming back, she said. An influx of Australian tourists, several of whom said airfare to the U.S. is half of what it used to be, are helping to prop up sales, which are running 20 percent behind last year.

Having been in business for 41 years, Dell said she was on the lookout for “reasonably priced, wonderful, beautiful” items for spring from Mashiah Arrive and others. “You’ll always sell a separate. When people don’t have a lot of money to spend, they will always have a pair of black pants or a nice jacket they can put with a separate,” she said.

Kati Koos Bari has also seen more Australian shoppers recently in her signature store in San Francisco, including some who are spending $2,000 to $4,000 a shot due to strong currency exchange rates. Producing a newsletter has helped attract shoppers and encourage repeat business, she said.

She planned to order unconventional styles from Ray Harris, Banana Blue Australia and others at last month’s show. “I am looking for anything special. People will put five things back to have one special piece,” Bari said.

Annual sales are 20 percent off compared with last year, but she has tried to offset that loss by not taking as many New York buying trips, bringing her lunch to work and limiting entertaining. Bari also lined up a slight rent reduction this year for her store.

Kathryn Cumming, owner of Kathryn’s Collection in Naples, Fla., said she was eager to find “unusual, artistic-type separates,” which get more use and offer a better fit than most dresses. Trunk shows, fashion shows, charity events and special gatherings in the store’s garden have helped business, she said.

“We have noticed that a lot of vendors are coming out with lower-priced lines,” Cumming said. “As soon as you start trading down, it becomes self-defeating. It is better to give them a reason to buy.”

Another Florida retailer, Hank Dvoor, who owns Kaye Louise in Boca Raton, Fla., said shoppers want artsy, nonconstructed pieces in hard-to-find fabrics and patterns from Blanque and other show resources. Interestingly, the average purchase in his store is still between $500 and $600, but a decline in store traffic has made business “very slow,” he said.

“It’s not the economy — it’s Madoff. We lost 48 clients who used to buy in the thousands,” Dvoor said, referring to shoppers whose finances were leveled by financier Bernie Madoff.

In addition to Sonia’s, a Summit, Pa., boutique, Sonia Wysochanski owns a children’s wear business, an interiors one and another for custom closets. That diversity has helped her in the economic downturn, she said. Buying a select number of pieces in a specific style and selling plus-size clothing have also been advantageous. From show resources Lanvie, Steel Pony and Carol Turner Collection, she ordered shirts, blouses and tops in the $60 to $140 wholesale price range.

Retailers said they need to be candid with shoppers about what looks good. “If something looks terrible, I’ll tell someone to take it off,” she said. “Otherwise, it will make the store look bad.”

She and other nearby merchants have banded together to launch a “buy local” initiative, and a Web site is being set up so store owners can show off their merchandise online.