WWD chatted recently with a trio of Illinois specialty store owners to discuss the state of retail. The discussion addressed several issues, including open-to-buys, coping with the post-Sept. 11 sluggish economy, important trends and customer shopping patterns. The retailers were: Tricia Tunstall, co-owner along with Jessica Darrow, p.45, Chicago; Gina Kulbieda, Jolie Joli, Chicago, and Debbie Hennen, Deborah Jean’s, Naperville.

Tunstall: “We use a combination of an inventory management system and our instincts. We work with an inventory management consultant every month to review and project on the business. In this meeting, we look at our open-to-buy by class, as well as any trends that are going on in the fashion industry.”

Kulbieda: “I do something really unique. It’s a math formula that works for me, but I don’t want to let my competition know how I do it.”

Hennen: “I use a formal order-to-buy to determine the wholesale dollars that I’m going to spend. I calculate it based on current stock, rate of travel, projected sales and then on my markdown schedule.”

Due to the economy and the aftermath of Sept. 11, did you revise or cut back your spring buying? Have you filled in with reorders? Have you dropped any categories?

Tunstall: “We were very cautious buying in spring I. We scaled back our spring I open-to-buy with the hopes of reordering. We have been begging our designers to ship us early and have already reordered several collections.”

Kulbieda: “I bought cautiously for spring-summer 2002. In this business, there is always the opportunity to go back in and either reorder or buy immediates if business continues on an upward trend. I’ve dropped designers, but I haven’t dropped any categories.”

Hennen: “I didn’t cut back, but I revised. We’re more item-driven, as opposed to complete collections. What I used to allocate for complete outfits, I re-allocated in key items such as jackets and sweaters, figuring that people wouldn’t be spending as much. I also went for a slightly lower price point. I haven’t dropped any categories. If I have a good line, I will fill in with a small reorder. I never do huge reorders.”

Has your business turned around since the fall? How are you planning your budget for the upcoming market (up, down or even with last year)? Why? What seasons are you buying?

Tunstall: “We are still being cautious about what we buy. Retail is picking up, and we are seeing more and more customers shedding their concerns. We cannot get our new product in fast enough, and we are reordering to fill in. At this time, we are buying last-minute late spring and summer. We had a terrific third quarter last year with or without considerations of Sept. 11. We felt a significant falloff in business in January, and we are seeing an increase in customer traffic in February. People are looking for new spring merchandise, which is a positive. For future markets, we are looking forward to seeing what is offered and we will place smaller orders and count on reorders and fill-ins.”

Kulbieda: “I am currently buying for the fall-winter 2002 season. The last three months at Jolie Joli have been great. Our business was up in November and December. We held off having any sales until January, and it was worth it. We did very well that month, and now February is off to a great start. Our first new shipments are already selling well.”

Hennen: “I will definitely be buying summer at StyleMax. I’m trying not to order beyond 90-days delivery — 60 days is ideal. That way, I can see what my customers are thinking, and I can make better decisions. My budget will remain the same.”

Are you sticking with best-selling lines or experimenting with new ones?

Tunstall: “We are buying a mixture. Since p.45 is known for promoting emerging designers, we are always looking for new talent. For spring, we bought heavily in some of our best-selling designers such as Michelle Mason, Rebecca Taylor and Martin. We are also introducing some new designers, including Lemon Tees and Tony Smith.”

Kulbieda: “We will be sticking with our tried-and-true lines this season and also for fall-winter 2002. We are only picking up one new line for spring, Marc by Marc Jacobs, and one line for fall, Essentiels out of Belgium. The second line really wowed me, so I just could not pass it by.”

Hennen: “I always experiment with new lines. I do have some tried-and-true lines, but it’s important to have some diversification. You’ve got to give customers a new excitement level when they enter the store.”

What categories and trends will be important?

Tunstall: “The peasant and bohemian looks are all over the magazines, and we think that those are the biggest looks for spring. Separates are very important, with focus on tops and T-shirts, denim pieces, fuller skirts, embroidered tops, anything white or cream and great belts and bags.”

Kulbieda: “Important categories are denim and T-shirts for the summer season and not just the basics. This category has really developed nicely since I started in retail. Important trends include peasant blouses and skirts, anything feminine, flirty or flowing, soft colors, big full skirts, denim miniskirts, graphic prints and florals.”

Hennen: “I think the item-driven business, including fun, novelty jackets. I don’t think the American woman needs that complete look like they used to.”

What have your customers been telling you they want to add to their wardrobe?

Tunstall: “For spring, customers want a great white shirt. They’re doing a lot of belts. We see the fuller skirt trend and the bohemian look. The peasant shirt is very wearable.”

Kulbieda: “They depend on us to help them build their wardrobes. They don’t really say, ‘I need this.’ It’s more ‘What do you think I need? I want a couple trend pieces. What do you think?”‘

Hennen: “Updated basics. Cropped, ankle or capri pants. I have absolutely zero shorts. No one wants them.”

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