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Buyers Trawl Collective for the New and Exciting

Retailers play it safe while hoping to excite customer.

Deals and discoveries.

This story first appeared in the January 29, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That’s what specialty store retailers were prowling for at The Collective show at Pier 94 in New York last week.

With business remaining challenging, merchants sought items to spur shoppers to buy. Everything from Rufus sport shirts to Kroon sportswear caught retailers’ eyes. At the same time, they were hoping vendors would cut them a break on price or terms to help make the unappetizing business climate a little more appealing.

“We’re just grinding it out,” said Stuart Segel, executive vice president of Mr. Sid in the Boston suburb of Newton Centre, Mass. “As tough as it is today, it’s really difficult to plan six months out.” That being said, he was walking the show looking for “great outerwear” and “good value.”

Segel, who was holding back around 30 percent of his fall open-to-buy, said that with the “deflated” attitude prevalent among shoppers and within the industry, “we need some enthusiasm.” Nevertheless, he’s not expecting any kind of uptick for at least nine months.

Arnold Brant Silverstone, design director of men’s dresswear for the Nordstrom Product Group, was at the show “looking for items. You have to entice the customer to shop today and he’s looking for great value.”

Silverstone said that with the luxury end of the market especially feeling the pinch, Nordstrom is “going after the modern guy who is looking for luxury that is not at crazy prices — I call it value luxury. He may not be buying replacement clothing, but he’s still coming to the store and we have to grab him while he’s there.”

Silverstone hinted Nordstrom will be introducing a line of private label men’s wear for fall that will sell for under $1,000 to appeal to the price-sensitive luxury shopper.

Luke Abney, owner of The Rogue in Jackson, Miss., said that although business is still tough, “every day that we get up we’re one day closer to this being over.” But until things pick up, the store will work to “control inventories up front” and “partner with as many or as few vendors who will give us the best available deal for our store.”

Although price is paramount, Abney also knows that to draw customers in, “we still have to have some fashion in the store.” He pointed to Rufus shirts, “which always look great,” along with Thomas Dean, as highlights of the show, and Angelo Nardelli outerwear and sport coats, not showing at The Collective, as a line with appealing styles and a more reasonable price point. “It’s a small collection, everything’s under $1,000 and it has a real point of view,” he said.

Abney said the company opened a women’s store in September and is learning some lessons from that faster-turning business. “It’s an in-and-out business model and we’re applying that to the men’s culture,” he said.

Although he’s holding back about 25 percent of his fall open-to-buy, Abney still wants to have appealing product for his customers. “[Business] will turn around. We just don’t know when. But as long as we’re around, we have to give people a reason to come in.”

Ari Hoffman, chief executive officer of Gant USA, said the economic downturn has created an interesting juxtaposition. Stores that wouldn’t look at the label before are now interested, he said, as the luxury end of the market has dried up. For example, he said, “at Barneys, we did extremely well, but we were the opening price point in the Co-op department. So in a way, [the economy] is a little bit of an advantage for us. Before, luxury was the big word — now the big word is value.”

Hoffman said that if retailers “plan to stay in business, they have to buy. The only question is who and how much. If you’re a marginal resource, you may not make it.”

Mike Zack of Circa 2000 in Plano, Tex., said: “We’re getting beat up a little, but we’re in the ring fighting. I’m going to be here next year, and I have to buy something.”

To capitalize on the discounting craze, Zack opened another business last fall called SH.OP for Shopping Off-Price. He took a temporary lease in a shopping center in town and sold “odds and ends” at 70 percent off. A successful run ended recently, but Zack plans to reopen again for spring.

At The Collective, he was shopping for both stores and found “some outerwear pieces and nice shirtings.” He also liked Kroon’s sport coats and outerwear. His overall budget was down around 25 percent, and he spent a lot of time “studying and learning. I would do my customer a disservice if I didn’t look at everything,” he said.

Tim Ryan of Harley’s in Shorewood, Wis., called himself a “survivor. We’re doing OK. Business is not what we’d hoped, but we increased our marketing budget and saw some success with that. Also, our inventories are very lean.” Ryan, who said he will either remodel his store or relocate by May, said that in the current economic climate, “manufacturers seem to be more willing to create a partnership. And that’s important for all of us. My plan is to do more looking here and then place orders after the market. We’re also leaving 20 to 25 percent of our open-to-buy dollars off the table for opportunistic in-season buying.”

He did, however, point to Borgo, a vendor in the Blue contemporary section of the show, as a sportswear line “that caught my eye. It can be sold to a younger customer. But that’s the only thing I’ve seen so far that has blown me away.”

Successful exhibitors fell into two primary camps: niche players with trend-right, well-priced apparel, and venerable names with a proven track record with consumers.

The craze for glossy down jackets, fueled by designer brand Moncler, translated into solid sell-throughs this fall — a good environment for 313, an Italian brand specializing in down that showed at Blue. “A lot of people are looking for a down coat resource,” said Mark Ernst, who reps the line through the Organico Showroom. “It’s an important trend, and we offer a new product at a salable value.” A down blazer retails for $195; hooded styles with fur trim top out at $495.

He added retailers gravitated to colorful styles with innovative quilting patterns and zipper details.

At the opposite end, Earnest Sewn edited its line for this season to offer a tighter assortment. “Sixty-five percent of our business is in basic five-pocket models. Retailers aren’t taking risks this year; they want the two best styles in the two best washes,” said president Michael Press.

He and a number of other vendors said they planned to run deep in some styles in reaction to retailers’ plans to hold back a good portion of their open-to-buy. “We tend to stock up on basics so it may create opportunity to chase business this summer.”

Scott Barber, founder of the eponymous sportswear brand, agreed. “No one knows what it’s going to be like in five months,” he said. “So we’re not sure how much excess inventory to have on hand. We certainly want to catch pent-up demand if it’s there later in the season.”

Barber said the trend toward conservative buying bodes well for his line of classic sportswear. “The market legislates in our favor,” he said of the new asceticism guiding consumer behavior. “Our customer may have bought a Bentley in the past but now may not want to have something so showy.” To wit, he showed tattersall woven shirts, khaki corduroys and casual knits.

Dunning, which got its start as a golfwear resource, showed a complete collection at the show, injecting some technical elements, such as Coolmax, into traditional men’s wear items including seersucker shorts. It also showed an assortment of woven button-front shirts in subdued patterns along with mercerized cotton polos.

Vendors across the board cited interest in stock and made-to-measure programs too, as retailers maneuver to shrink inventories.

The interest in its stock line is prompting Southwick, which showed its first line since Brooks Brothers purchased the manufacturer, to beef up offerings for next season. “Retailers don’t want to hold onto inventory in this environment. It’s a big call-out for the show for us,” said Joe Dixon, vice president for sourcing and technical design.