HUNT FOR NEW LINES SPARKS RETAIL AGENDA
Byline: Kristi Ellis
LOS ANGELES — While the plus-size business has not been immune to the difficulties afflicting the retail business generally, buyers heading for the upcoming BAT Woman show in Las Vegas say they’re geared to look for new lines and items.
The show, whose name stands for Big and Tall Woman, is set for March 11-13 at the Tropicana in Las Vegas. Show management says that the twice-yearly event, now heading into its sixth year, has gained momentum on its premise of giving exclusive recognition to a significant slice of the market.
According to figures from NPD Research, the large-size business grew 3.4 percent last year to hit a retail volume of $17.19 billion. It accounted for 24 percent of all women’s apparel volume, which slipped behind 0.1 percent to $71.76 billion in 1995, according to NPD. The 1995 gain in large sizes followed a more impressive jump in sales in 1994, when volume pushed ahead 11.2 percent. NPD defines large sizes as size 16 and over, along with all half-sizes.
Meanwhile, BAT Woman, which originally started with 60 vendors, has grown steadily, noted Jeff Yunis, owner of Specialty Trade Shows, which produces the event. Next week’s edition, he said, will have nearly 300 plus-size and tall lines shown by approximately 140 exhibitors, offering merchandise ranging from special occasion and leather products to underwear and hosiery.
An average of 200 to 300 buyers attend the show, although the group’s active list of buyers — stores that attend at least once every three years — holds over 500 names.
Among those planning to attend the March show is Trudi Schlaifer, owner of Queen Size Boutique, a two-store operation with units in Seattle and Bellvue, Wash. Schlaifer said she attends the BAT show to look for new lines and she’ll be on the lookout in particular for some European designs.
Schlaifer said she considers the March show too early for her fall buy, so she plans to reorder for summer and pick up items.
“I am looking for items in anything,” she said. “Anything that looks good from jackets to skirts…in all price categories.”
Schlaifer carries sportswear, special occasion dresses and dresses with retail price points ranging from $34 for a pair of pants to $800 for a special occasion dress.
Currently, she is showing a lot of cotton and linen, and she said she emphasizes natural fibers, including flax, cotton and silk, as much as she can.
“We have been selling a lot of T-shirts, and cotton knit outfits have been moving,” she said.
Overall, however, Schlaifer is not bragging about business, noting that her volume this year is falling behind a year ago. “The retail climate stinks,” she said.
Pam Scarpelli, owner of Greater Salt Lake Woman, a two-unit plus-size store in Salt Lake City, Utah, rated the BAT Woman as important because it gives her the opportunity to find new lines.
“Every vendor that I brought into this city is now being carried by some other store,” said Scarpelli, reflecting on the continuing necessity to find new resources.
Shopping for wholesale price points in the moderate and better range, Scarpelli said she plans to buy immediates as well as fall items. She noted she also has an appointment to look at some off-price merchandise.
“I’m buying a little more carefully and closer to the line,” said Scarpelli. “I am not buying maybes, I am buying for sure.”
She said that she is getting back into better goods to try to restimulate the store action, blaming slow business on the unusually warm fall and winter weather in Utah.
Her stores carry dresses, special occasion and sportswear. Scarpelli said softer pantsuits are selling well, as are such colors in special occasion as forest green and burgundy.
Exhibitors will be showing a seasonal mix of goods, ranging from items for at-once delivery to full fall collections or previews.
Joyce Rogers, owner of Los Angeles-based Rogerswear, plans to show immediates, summer and a little fall at the show. Her firm makes plus sizes and super sizes — a still larger range going from 4x to 6x, which she still considers a fringe market product.
“Super sizes are an impulse buy,” she said. “It is also a new avenue for the stores.”
Strong colors have been purples, fuchsias, teals and brights. “I’m not wrapping them in soft pinks or flashy colors,” she said. Buffalo checks have also sold well.
The bulk of Rogers’ business — 70 to 80 percent — is in dresses, and crinkled rayon seems to be the fabric of choice, she said.
Bill Barco, vice president and national sales manager of Los Angeles-based Only in USA, said he plans to show the fall collection of the firm’s plus-size label, called Only for Women.
The manufacturer, which produces all-cotton casual and career dressings in plus sizes, will offer a 24-color fall line, including a soft pastel group, a classic group comprising navy, chianti and brown and black and a mid-tone group.
Barco said that exposure of the label in specialty stores has caught the interest of some larger stores, which are becoming more active promoting plus sizes.
Sales representative firm Elaine/Jessica Flom Sales has attended the BAT show periodically, but has opted to bypass the March show, noted co-owner Elaine Flom. This is because business on the West Coast, which she has found accounts for much of the retail traffic, is still lagging. However, she added, five of the manufacturers the sales group reps in New York plan to attend the show, three of them on their own and two with a multiline sales rep.
Flom said the show is important as the only one focusing exclusively on the large-size market, but she would like to see more national representation among buyers.
For spring, Flom noted, her manufacturers booked a lot of linen and cotton combinations, as well as crepes, but the special occasion dress business was weak. “Customers are moving into crepe suits, into something that they can wear in the day, then to a wedding,” Flom said. “They don’t want a separate wardrobe anymore. She wants clothes that can truly go 14 hours a day.”
That is one reason the Sharon Philips line, which offers fitted coats, suits and dresses and will be showing at BAT Woman, is doing well, as volume in special occasion lines has been tough, noted Flom. Commenting on the weakness in special occasion, she said, “It took [the vendors] a long time to realize that the women don’t want solid beaded dresses. They want beaded trim dresses.
“We have to redefine special occasion and guest of the wedding,” Flom continued. “It has become suits, cotton crochets and beautifully printed dresses.”
Another label that is doing well is Lily, also planning to show at BAT Woman, Flom said. It features three-piece sets, including suits with Battenburg lace and crocheted inserts.