NEW YORK — They’ve weathered waves of retail bankruptcies. They’ve withstood consolidations. They’ve even endured the dreaded cookie-cutter retail rollout formula.
But many visual merchandising companies — the firms that create signs, lighting, mannequins, forms, fixtures, furniture and decoratives to enliven stores and spotlight merchandise — have hung in there. And now the survivors say they’re about to get a big lift.
There’s a new trade venue in which to show off their wares: Visual New York-Store Concepts ’96. It runs Dec. 3-5 at the New York Armory, Lexington Avenue and 25th Street, and at permanent showrooms here Dec. 2-6.
“It’s creating excitement,” says Norman Glazer, president, chairman and owner of Patina V, a manufacturer of mannequins, forms, decoratives, shop concepts and furniture, based in City of Industry, Calif.
Glazer is also president of Visual New York, an association of 18 visual merchandising companies, each with a permanent showroom here. The group is battling to bring more retailers from around the world into showrooms during market weeks, and along with about 25 other companies with showrooms in the city, is endorsing the armory show, while Fairchild Publications has the rights to use the group’s name for the show. The group has also agreed to compensate Fairchild if the show ends up losing money.
About 100 booths featuring 50 to 60 exhibiting companies will fill the 30,000-square-foot drill hall in the armory, and between 2,500 and 4,000 retailers, designers and store architects are expected to attend. Many exhibitors are smaller vendors without permanent showrooms here, seeking greater exposure.
“The Searses, the May Co.’s, the Penneys and so forth are coming to see the show. That’s for sure. We couldn’t be happier,” Glazer says.
The buzz about the armory has, for some, lifted the outlook for business.
“It’s been very tough over the last three to five years, but this year is one of our best,” says Frank Glover, managing director, Universal Display & Design Inc., a creator of Christmas trim, mannequins and alternative bust forms, with a showroom here. “Retailing has picked up. People have released budgets. They’re back on the move, opening stores.”
Recent trade shows, held at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and Pier 92 of the city’s Passenger Ship Terminal on Manhattan’s West Side, have been sparsely attended by retailers. Many who did go said they found little of interest. There was plenty of unfilled exhibit space, creating the impression of a downtrodden industry. It’s also been an inconvenience to get from the Javits Center to the showrooms, which are concentrated in the Chelsea vicinity, an area from 17th to 26th Streets and from Seventh Avenue to Broadway.
“The bottom line was there weren’t enough exhibitors to entertain customers that went through,” Glazer says. “So we decided, who are we kidding? Let’s bring this show into a site that we can fill, and be very proud of, and where customers won’t feel that they’ve been taken.”
Glazer also points out that the armory is “centrally located for our customer base and closer to the market.”
Still, compared with a time five to 10 years ago, vendors see fewer stores and fewer people from each store. Market weeks remain nail-biting periods. Vendors typically receive just one to three people from each retail company, whereas in the Eighties, teams of 20 or 30 per store packed the trade shows and showrooms.
“We’re not going out to the stores as we used to. We have to listen closely to our customers,” says Dona R. Miller, chief executive officer of Vogue International, a Whittier, Calif., firm that creates mannequins and forms, metal fabrications, decoratives, even oversized replicas of comic book superheroes.
But she maintains, “This industry is very much alive.”
It survives by meeting the changing requirements of retailers: Maintenance-free props and abstract mannequins, enormous product customizing, innovation, products that are flexible, that fold, change heights and are movable from department to department, products that don’t go out of style in a season, that are priced fairly, and perhaps bear a touch of decorative whimsy, but not so much as to overshadow what’s being sold. “Retailers are looking for new and fresh ideas,” says Ralph Pucci of Pucci International mannequins here. “It’s that simple.”
Michael Southgate, managing director of Adel Rootstein, the well-known London mannequin maker, suggests retailers are seeking styles reflecting “realistic women, realistic size, no longer anorexic, runway stereotypes.”
What’s in? “Credibility and simplicity,” Southgate insists.
Peter Gonzalez, creative director of Silvestri California, which supplies forms, mannequins, decorative items and fixtures, says retailers are looking for fixtures “easily adaptable to the home store, cosmetics or ready-to-wear departments.”
“Gone are the days of elaborate displays,” he said. “Raw and rust metal looks are out. Blond wood is out, replaced by dark rich mahogany with a high-gloss topcoat, almost plastic in appearance. Color, if used at all, should recall the Sixties and Seventies in tone. It’s shine, shine, shine via the use of chrome, Lucite, glass, granite and wood — all with the shiniest finishes possible.”
Retailers and apparel firms are also hunting for ways to capture the eyes and ears of customers inside the stores, according to Larry Ruderman, ceo of Electra Communications, Islandia, N.Y., a firm specializing in graphics, signage and in-store communications.
“Reaching the customer outside the store is more difficult,” Ruderman says. “Everyone is working longer hours. The Internet, satellite TV and other choices are making it difficult to capture the mass market. This makes in-store communications even more important. This means understanding their demographics, what they think, what motivates them.”
According to Ken Albright, president of Seven Continents, a Toronto-based manufacturer of forms, fixtures, furniture and mannequin alternatives, retailers seek “charisma that captures a modern tradition, forward and warm.”
“Drama is back,” he adds. “There is no better customer draw than light.”
“Retailers are looking for sleek materials on forms, shiny fabrics on forms, satin on forms,” observes George Dell, whose self-named firm showcases an eclectic collection of dress forms, furniture, accessories and decoratives.
According to David Terveen of DK Display, a representative for Hindsgaul Mannequins, floors, perimeters, lighting and ceiling treatments — permanent aspects of the retail environment — are increasingly becoming focal points, while the largest growth pattern continues to be the vendor shop and partnering with designers to create shops-in-shop.
“It can also be argued that this is one of the reasons our industry has shrunk,” Terveen says. “With these store concepts come large rollout programs making many North American outlets look similar and giving large amounts of business to some vendors and leaving others behind.”
“The hot area in our product category is flexibility and the ability to move our fixtures easily and quickly from one area to another. A quick response reaction is most important to our customers,” states James Maharg, president of Alu, here, specializing in interchangeable collections of fixtures, accessories, signage, forms and lighting, with “functional and flexible applications.”
“I’d like to see an emphasis on fixture design, an incredible shoe stand, an incredible hat stand, a really great bust form for men’s suits, a unique base for it, jewelry buildups, things we tend to do a lot in-house,” says Simon Doonan, executive vice president, creative services, Barneys New York, which tends to display men’s wear without props, while women’s merchandise uses props and, often, humorous elements.
“There’s such a dearth of good design. The gimmicky, theme-y things seem to dominate. And if there’s anything good, then you see it all over the place,” Doonan lamented.
Among the innovative products that will be presented during the market:
A versatile fixturing system from Robelan, Hempstead, N.Y., including nesting tables with removable plexi-dividers, telescoping legs and a decorative scissor motif.
Whimsical male and female mannequins designed by illustrator Jeffrey Fulvimari and holiday fiberglass urns by French designer Olivier Gagnere, both for Pucci.
An extensive line of Christmas decoratives by Trim Corp. of America, a Brooklyn company.
Photographic imagery in transparent form on glass or acrylic fixtures by Cies Sexton Visual of Denver, which produces custom and stock photographic and digital products for flooring, columns, fixtures, walls and tabletops.
Designs Industries’ exclusive fixturing programs for the Savane division of Farah Clothing, including components in maple and satin nickel metals.