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Loosening The Purse Strings

<?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = CS /><CS:BOLD>JANUARY MARKET FOUND BUYERS IN A CAUTIOUS FRAME OF MIND. MIGHT MARCH PROVE DIFFERENT?<BR><BR>Discretion was the better part of the retail strategy for many Midwest buyers shopping the summer-early fall market...

JANUARY MARKET FOUND BUYERS IN A CAUTIOUS FRAME OF MIND. MIGHT MARCH PROVE DIFFERENT?

Discretion was the better part of the retail strategy for many Midwest buyers shopping the summer-early fall market here coming off a difficult holiday season.

“We’re more selective,” said Bobbi Kurtz, owner of Runway, a trendy specialty shop in north suburban Deerfield. “We’re looking for clothing that generates more excitement.”

Susan McCullough, vice president of apparel for the Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., which operates the apparel center, said despite the tentative approach, “It’s the best positive attitude we’ve had since Sept. 11. People were ready to buy, plan their stock and move forward.”

Catching retailers’ eyes at the Jan. 25-29 market at the Chicago Apparel Center were capris and cropped pants, and novelty tops for summer and rich suedes for fall.

“Everything was very feminine, lots of lace and ruffles,” said Lisa Whitten, a co-owner of The Strawberry Patch in Peoria, Ill.

Whitten and her sister, co-owner Laurie Cain, ordered six different styles of a Kay Celine lace blouse in both black and white.

“The clothes are cute, people are going to like them,” Whitten said, “but we’re buying smarter and safer with plans to reorder, depending on what sells.”

Sales rep Mark Schneider of Schneider & Co., said, “Red is the number-one seller for fall,” noting strong orders for a $175 rich red faux suede and long berber coat by Fjall. Other novelty suede coats, jackets and vests from Fjall booked well, as did basic tan suede pants and jackets from Telluride.

As for StyleMax, which will be held at the Merchandise Mart March 23-26, registration tallies are not yet in, but McCullough predicts another sellout crowd.

“We have close to a thousand booths and between 3,000 and 4,000 lines of apparel in 20 merchandise categories — about the same as last October’s StyleMax show, which was sold out,” said McCullough.

Beyond repeat comers, “one hundred new stores have already signed up,” said McCullough, including many from the Southeast.

“A lot of people suggested that we expand our reach, so we targeted that region with direct mail and telemarketing,” she explained.

New this year will be an expanded contemporary category, and some added bridge lines. “We haven’t needed to add new categories, per se,” said McCullough, “because we aren’t missing anything. At this point, it’s all expansion — new lines, etc.”