Independent specialty shops are facing an uncertain future.

This story first appeared in the March 19, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

While discounters appear to be weathering the recession better than other retailers, and most department stores can typically offer shoppers deep discounts, boutique owners are caught in the middle. They’re reluctant to carry the same department store lines, and they can’t compete on price and volume of the discounters. They’re further confounded by competition from fast-fashion chains like H&M.

To survive, some shop owners are slashing budgets, sitting out trade shows and cutting overhead. They all agree that seeking interesting product is the best way to combat these tumultuous times.

Ben Belton, owner of Benjamin’s of Morganton in Morganton, N.C., is headed to the Atlanta Apparel Market, which runs March 27 to 30, looking for midrange products that pop.

“I’m so sick of the same damn silhouettes. There’s not a lot of true identity in the market right now,” Belton averred. “I’m trying to find items that are fresh.”

Benton’s spring budget is down as much as 30 percent from last year, and he’s eliminated trunk shows from his store’s events. He has skipped some trade shows and is writing smaller orders.

Benton said he will scour AmericasMart for ready-to-wear, accessories and new shoe lines, and plans to reorder core lines like Nanette Lepore, Trina Turk and Yansi Fugel.

Although pursuing cost-cutting measures and lower-priced goods, Benton is ensuring the overall quality of his store does not suffer.

“We have to be careful that we don’t trade down too much, dollar-wise. It’s all about perception of value. We don’t want to undermine our store,” he said.

Jan Bilthouse, owner of three Bilt House women’s boutiques in the Atlanta area, recently sold her building in Buckhead and is now renting the basement from the new owner to save overhead. She is also cutting special occasion and shoes in response to the recession.

Bilthouse, who also cut out some trade show activity, says she’ll write more fall immediates at the Atlanta market to make up for it. Dresses, plenty of color and accessories will take precedent. Customers are spending much less per visit, said Bilthouse, and she’s adjusted her price points accordingly.

“I don’t sell $700 jackets anymore. I sell them for $300. My customer is now deciding if she wants to add a third item to her purchase,” she said. “Last year, she was deciding if she wanted to add a 13th item.”

Lisa Adams, principal of Therapy with Lisa Adams, a multiline contemporary showroom, is working to address clients’ recession concerns.

“I’m becoming more conscious of my customers’ needs. Retailers today are becoming more price-conscious and are looking for lower-priced lines,” Adams said.

Adams is luring in buyers with trend-driven items from resources such as DreamLife, Fumblin’ Foe and C. Luce, which offer a contemporary sensibility at a more accessible price.

Doing its part to drum up business, AmericasMart is offering special incentives like giveaways for buyers and hosting an economic seminar for bridal retailers. Bridal will be the focus of a big push during the March show, with areas on floors 9 and 10 dedicated solely to engagement-party, bridesmaid and other wedding-related special-occasion apparel.

The mart is also bulking up contemporary offerings on floors 9 and 11, adding or expanding about 30 showrooms on both.

As reported, AmericasMart on Tuesday named Lori Kisner senior vice president for all apparel leasing and trade show sales. Her appointment comes with the departures of Lawton Hall, who worked at the mart for 31 years and was senior vice president of apparel leasing, and Chuck Corvi, project manager of apparel trade shows for about four years.

Kisner, a former executive at Surf Expo, a trade show that she helped create more than 20 years ago under the ownership of AmericasMart parent AMC, worked for AmericasMart from 1986 to 1988 as the men’s and boys’ trade show sales coordinator.