Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Once considered a pleasant bonus by shoppers in better specialty stores, customer service has emerged as a critical key to the very survival of those stores.
Faced with an unstable retail climate, some specialty stores attending two hotel shows here last week said they were shopping with specific customers in mind. In addition, price, which remains an issue for many department store and mass-market shoppers, generally is not a concern for boutique clients — as long as the apparel is unusual enough.
The strategy seems to be paying off for some specialty stores that are reporting double-digit sales gains.
Fourteen fall ready-to-wear and eveningwear resources were being shown at Designers at the Essex House, which opened Feb. 24 and closes today.
Seven designers participated in the American International Designers at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, which closed a six-day run Thursday. One resource, Peggy Jennings, shows its collections in a suite at the Waldorf throughout the year.
The only thing a store has to offer today is service, according to Leonard Rutan, owner of the 5,000-square-foot store bearing his name in Houston. On the lookout for “sophisticated younger styles,” he said he shops at the shows with specific customers in mind.
“It’s still a carriage trade in Houston. Customers drive up to our door and know we have things waiting for them,” he said. “They don’t go around comparison shopping.”
At the Waldorf, he ordered daytime dresses at $300 wholesale in four-ply silk and merino wool and $375 wool plaid suits from Collection 3.
Having seen a double-digit jump in sales in the first two months of this year compared with the same period last year, Rutan said his separates business is building, but that dresses should be more important for spring.
Judy Pryor, president of Pryorities, a 1,500-square-foot Houston shop, said she opened her store in August with customer service as her mission.
“We offer what the big stores can’t. We’re able to do alterations quickly,” she said. “We have samples, swatches and sketches available. Everyone is willing to work a little harder because business has been so difficult. Manufacturers and stores are working well together now.”
Business is also up more than 10 percent at Debra C.’s, an 1,800-square-foot store in Beverly Hills, according to owner Debra Ciralov, whose budget is higher than last year’s.
She said she liked the looks of $180 cashmere pants, $190 sweaters with detachable satin cuffs and $400 jackets from Fathi Due Cashmere and a $225 ribbed wool cardigan and a $240 double-breasted jacket from Swiss Alpinit.
Phyllis Walker, owner of Del Ann’s, a 4,500-square-foot store in Dallas, said she sells fall and transition pieces beginning in late May.
Having relocated to a larger store and aiming to reach younger customers, Walker said she planned to spend substantially more at this year’s shows. Business is 30 percent ahead, and January sales were 66 percent ahead of the same period in 1995, she said.
“We’re offering a variety of hemlines, fabrics and styles but not a variation of price,” Walker said. “We can’t make a tradeoff on quality to get a better price.”
She said she planned to order suits and cocktail dresses from David Hayes, Mark Heister and Lily Samii. She was also shopping for mother-of-the-bride dresses, noting that 36 customers were looking for that category during a 12-day period last month.
At Collection 3, Nelson Durant, sales manager of the South El Monte, Calif., firm, said he is receiving more requests for alterations in skirt lengths, waistbands and sleeve lengths.
“If they want it, I’ll do it,” he said.
Lynda Patton, corporate coordinator for Collection 3, said she was surprised by the number of retailers who attended the show with computerized printouts of their customers’ names, sizes and needs.
At one time, the show was regarded solely as a preview of fall. That’s not the case any more, as 20 stores left their first orders for fall, even though they plan to return in April to place additional orders, Durant said.
At the Essex House, Carole and Eleanore Rosenstein, owners of Hugo Nicholson, a specialty store in Montreal, said they were planning to order daytime and evening pieces from Zonda Nellis and Sansapelle. Their budget is increased over last year.
Weary from attending most of last week’s trade shows, Eleanore Rosenstein criticized the shows’ producers for such a hectic schedule. “They need to give people the time to review a collection properly,” she said.
Armed with a list of customers and their requests, Ellen Gradwohl, buyer for Charles Sumner, a two-store operation in Boston, said she would order cashmere separates and dresses from Fathi Due Cashmere and silk day-into-evening dresses from Lili Butler. She also said she planned to order knitwear from Megalino, a new resource at the Essex House.
“Customer service is what’s going to keep us all in business,” she said. “That’s what being a specialty store is all about.” Price is not an issue for her customers, provided there is uniqueness, said Gradwohl, adding that her business is “on target.”
Several resources said weekend traffic is definitely climbing compared to previous shows. At the Essex House, Linda Heister, vice president of Mark Heister, worked with 32 stores over the first weekend. Even though the February market is generally not the most profitable in terms of orders, it is important for trends, she said.
“It’s not as though people are placing multi-million-dollar orders,” she said. “But at least you get a reading about what’s going on in the market and what’s moving.”

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