Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio

NEW YORK — While category management is well entrenched in marketing commodity apparel products, mainstream fashion firms like Liz Claiborne and Sassco Fashions are just getting into the act.
The practice is one of survival, say apparel executives. With retailers consolidating into larger entities, manufacturers are seeing the need to manage their own businesses on the selling floor. The process involves supplying product coordinators, establishing in-store shops and developing inventory control systems.
“Finally, it is happening,” said Kurt Barnard, publisher of the Barnard Retail Marketing Report. “Stores should be considered nothing more than a distribution mechanism for the suppliers. The vendor has to get involved, in every aspect of merchandising and marketing.”
A good example is Sassco, a dominant better-price maker of Kasper for ASL suits, which was “being bounced around like a football” on the retail selling floor until it developed a category management plan two years ago, said Gregg Marks, president.
Marks credits Sassco’s category management program for increasing sales by 20 to 30 percent in the two years that the program has been in place.
“The suit business was like a football field,” Marks said. “What we wanted was to create a consistent home. We wanted a level playing field. We wanted to control our own destiny.”
Marks notes that his firm’s brand, along with his brand’s competing suit labels, usually sits in prime retail space, either on main aisles or opposite central escalators.
As part of its strategy, Sassco, which occupies about 70 percent of the space in the better suit departments, hired 13 coordinators, who go from store to store checking out what items are selling and whether proper markdowns are being taken. They also take physical counts of stock and often take color photos of the merchandise presentation.
Each coordinator oversees a particular region, Marks said. Sassco’s key accounts include May Department Stores, Federated Department Stores, Dillard Department Stores, Carson Pirie Scott, Marshall Fields, Dayton’s and Hudson’s.
“I get reports from selling specialists once a month and weekly reports from coordinators once a week, plus photos,” Marks said.
He noted that his brand’s competing labels, like Albert Nipon Suits, which is also a Sassco unit, and Bicci, a unit of PSI, have also enjoyed increased sales thanks to the better retail space.
Retailers that work with Sassco have also been pleased by the results.
“There is all this explosion of technology, but yet the communication has broken down,” said Tina Rubin, a suit buyer at Macy’s West. “There is all this turnover in store management, and as we get bigger, there’s less time we can spend at the stores. These coordinators are our eyes and ears.”
Marks notes, however, that sometimes his deep knowledge and research on the suit business takes retailers off guard.
“I had a recent meeting with one retail executive, who was upset himself because I knew more about the business than he did,” Marks said.
Liz Claiborne Inc., which is in the midst of a transformation led by president and chief executive officer Paul R. Charron, is turning more to category management through a multifaceted strategy. Among the Claiborne’s ploys is inventory management and a store specialist program, a plan that was put in place in January.
Claiborne’s most recent development is its new visual merchandise presentation prototype, which is being unveiled this week to retailers. The new display, which features tan wood, floral murals and intimate seating areas, was based on information gleaned from the company’s comprehensive consumer study, which was completed last June.
“Our findings show that consumers are intimidated by assortments that do not reflect versatility,” said Al Shapiro, vice president of corporate marketing. “She is receptive to outfitting suggestions. We are learning to make the shopping environment friendlier for her.”
The in-store shops, which will range from 1,000 to 8,000 square feet, will feature the better sportswear lines — Collection, Lizwear, Lizsport and Liz & Co. Installation of the in-store concept, which was designed by Desgrippe Gobe, based in New York, is expected to begin in stores in July.
“The design is very flexible and will be custom made for each door,” Shapiro said.
As reported, the company in August said that it was returning to industry- standard payment terms of 8 percent from 10 percent and was funneling some of the savings into programs like Liz Edge, a new in-store service and marketing program, launched in January. So far, the results have been positive, Shapiro said.
As part of the program, the company hired some 125 sales associates to oversee the sportswear and accessories lines.
Controlling inventory at Claiborne has also been a major cornerstone of the company’s turnaround plan.
In January 1995, the company launched RIM, or retail inventory management. The program, which tracks items down to color and size, was launched in the denim-driven Lizwear division but has been expanded to Claiborne Men’s, and its special-size lines, according to John Thompson, senior vice president, service, systems and reengineering.
The program has been expanded to a total of 170 doors, but is planned to be in 600 doors by mid-1996. Thompson noted a 30 percent increase in sales in locations that use RIM. At the same time, model stock levels at these stores have been decreased by 20 to 25 percent.
“We used to be a fashion house that was not into the replenishment business,” Thompson said. “We never had the depth of assortment to maintain a replenishment environment. Now, our point of view is that we have to have the right product — down to size and color — always in stock, tailored to the market.”

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