Standing out from the competition is more essential than ever, according to retailers attending the Designers & Agents show last week in New York.
Housed in two locations on West 26th Street, the trade show offered a selection of sportswear, accessories, footwear and other items.
In search of accessories and tried-and-true contemporary labels like Hartford Paris and Bellerose, Haley McMahon was buying for Mercantile in Portland, Ore. She looks for European lines that are not sold on the West Coast. Shirts, dresses and sweaters are strong categories, and business is good due to the city’s ongoing growth. Having worked at her best friend’s store for 35 of the 45 years it has been in downtown Portland, McMahon said being located near numerous new hotels has helped sales, and the city’s first five-story hotel, a Ritz Carlton, is being built a block away.
Owner Cindy Kahng and sales specialist Rebecca Li are being more innovative about enticing shoppers to Azaleas, a lingerie and swimwear retailer with outposts in Manhattan’s East Village and West Village. They were looking for accessories and other items such as socks from Hansel From Basel. Specializing in swimwear and lingerie, the retailer accents its assortment with interesting novelty items.
Li said, “Retail is tough — brick-and-mortar is tough. The industry is switching and the Internet is definitely having a damper on brick-and-mortars. You have to be more specialty about everything — be super-curated and really, really hand-pick everything to make sure that everything in your store is one-of-a-kind, hard-to-find. That’s what we’re definitely looking for.”
Window displays and merchandising are increasingly crucial enticements, she said. The average Azaleas shopper spends $150 per visit, thanks to customers who are pretty consistent. The company has been in business for 17 years.
Li said of the changing landscape, “Small businesses are shutting down even along Ninth Street. The East Village’s neighborhood-y feel is totally disappearing with different clienteles moving into neighborhoods and escalating rents pushing retailers out.”
Threads is a year-round store in the resort area of Petoskey, Mich. Catering to more impulsive shoppers, who are “more inclined to buy what they want rather than what they need,” Chris Jaconette said she was looking for unique items. Hard-to-find brands that aren’t typically sold in department stores were another must, since her clients are veering away from shopping at department stores.
At D&A, she picked up a sweater line, accessories, boots, winter ski hats, novelty styles, pajamas and swimwear from such labels as Rose & Rose and MJ Watson. The increased competition of online shopping is not restricted to at-home shoppers. She said, “We really try to be consistent. We have savvy shoppers so they know. They can go in the fitting room, look at prices on their phones and shop around. Once in a while if something is on sale, they will [do that] and ask for a price match.”
Jaconette generally agrees to match the price, explaining, “We would rather they bought it from us than ordered it online.”
In business for 20 years, last year Thread’s sales were up “a little bit,” she said, “We’re in a small town, we’ve stayed consistent, our business is up and we’re starting to get some momentum. We’re kind of excited about that.”
Planning to open a store in Vancouver called Cadine, sisters Brenda and Paula Li were shopping for casual, timeless, good-quality pieces such as sweaters and pants. A nice basics line was also on their check list and that is harder to find than one might expect, they said. Margaret O’Leary was among the vendors they ordered. “We’re looking for pieces that you can enjoy for a lifetime if you treat it well,” Brenda Li said, citing cashmere cardigans retailing around $750 as an example.
Choosing a location that is on a main drag in a largely residential area is a plus, since most of the nearby businesses are cafes and service-oriented ones, they said. Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s move to Vancouver Island hasn’t flooded the area with tourists. Li said, “We’re very Canadian so we’re very quiet. There’s no paparazzi. We’re pretty chill. It’s not like in L.A.”
One of the show’s vendors, Elaine Kim, said vegan leather down puffers that wholesale for $400 were strong items in her signature line. Stretch pants that wholesale around $125 are consistently popular, and there is increased interest in novelty sweaters such as a $258 pullover with a zipper on the back. “People are looking for special luxe items. It’s almost as though the clothing also has to be an accessory [as in statement pieces] and that’s what I specialize in. People are looking for very novel pieces,” Kim said.
That said, Kim said she wishes that buyers were more receptive to discovering smaller brands instead of being so locked in with the bigger brands that they already carry. Still in growth mode after starting wholesale three or four years ago, Kim also has a store in Los Angeles and two in New York City. “So in the middle of the country, we have to fill in. I do a lot of trunk shows to help my retailers.”
Linsey Fisher, a sales representative with Circolo Showroom, which represents 15 brands, said of retailers, “No one has complained, which is usually a really good sign. When things are going bad, they usually complain right away. People are buying and putting in orders for a lot of cashmere cardigans. Coats are huge — from Canadian Classic, and puffers are huge,” according to Fisher, who also singled out the bohemian trend as key.