Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Specialty store retailers were showing signs of strengthened confidence as they shopped the 80th International Fashion Boutique Show here this week.
The four-day event at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center ended Tuesday.
While acknowledging that they face a difficult retail climate and fickle consumers, retailers said it is becoming increasingly clear to them that they have an opportunity to snare business from big specialty store and department store chains, where the merchandise tends to look the same.
“People are willing to spend a little more for something different. You go into a mall and you don’t know what state you’re in,” said Barbara Kirkwood, co-owner of Nahani, a 1,700-square-foot store in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “The small businessman has a great opportunity if he can be creative with merchandising and buying.”
With sales running 50 percent ahead of last year, Kirkwood and co-owner Patricia Sanicola, said they planned to order “artistic, unusual separates” at the show from Minnesota Mitten, Eco Sport, Artistic Leisure and Primaline. They also planned to order immediate and fall merchandise from Papy Boez, provided the line is not carried by any of their competitors.
The pair said 1995 was the most profitable in the store’s 13-year history. To appeal to a broad base of consumers, retail prices at Nahani range from $12 for a cotton T-shirt to $500 for a boiled wool jacket.
Moreover, to keep customers in the store longer, Kirkwood and Sanicola recently began selling toys and trinkets for children, who until then had expressed their impatience for shopping by nagging their parents to leave.
Monica Schaffer, owner of Wild Child, a flower and gift store in Wakefield, R.I., said she began offering apparel this spring after large grocery chains cut into her flower business.
“It’s very hard to be different. I’m looking for well-made, well-designed clothes because you can get anything else at The Gap,” she said. “I want high-end linen clothes with style.”
On the lookout for feminine T-shirts, petticoats and other underpinnings, Schaffer said she planned to order from Wednesday’s Child and Aly-Wear.
The store has seen a great reaction to its spring apparel, she said. Many customers, she noted, are pleased to have a specialty store in their area — to avoid a 30-minute drive to stores in Providence.
At Howdywear, a 3,200-square-foot store in Burlington, Vt., that sells apparel for the family, women’s sales are 20 percent ahead of last year’s, according to owners Bonnie Hart and Brooke Hadwen. For the first time in a few years, a growing number of students and young mothers are using their disposable income to buy clothes, they noted.
The pair said they were looking for fall separates, such as sweaters and dresses from Anthropologie, Free People, Momentum and River Road. Having seen the average sale increase more than 20 percent to $65, they said they were seeking higher-priced items.
In addition, they were looking for more off-price items to accommodate students.
“Our customers are conservative,” Hart said. “We won’t buy any of the clingy little pieces from the Seventies.”
In contrast, trendy items are driving the business for Precision, a three-store operation here. Rochelle and Anthony Aliotta, co-owners, said pants, especially hip-huggers, are the best-selling item. With retail prices ranging from $60 to $160, polyester twill pants have replaced skirts as the spring trend, they said.
Sales are 20 percent ahead of last year’s and should continue to grow due to the freshness in brights and prints.
“People are buying more items. It’s not like a few years ago, where you were all set with a couple of suits and a pair of Gap jeans,” Anthony Aliotta said. “There’s enough newness out there that they have to buy. They’ve bought enough spirituality books and candles — now they’re buying clothes again.”
Not everyone, however, was enthusiastic about business.
Joan Alderman and Annette Yanus, owners of Artistic Associates, a beauty salon and apparel boutique in Rensselaer, N.Y., said their show budget was 25 percent smaller than last year’s since fall and winter business was off.
Artistic Associates’ business has been affected by layoffs at the state capital in nearby Albany as well as downsizing at Nynex’s offices in the area.
“Our customers will still have their hair done, but they won’t buy clothing,” Yanus said. “We’re being more cautious about how we spend our money. We’d rather be understocked than overstocked.”
To maintain demand, items are offered on a limited basis and never reordered.
“We don’t have any storage room. We buy it so we can move it,” Yanus said. “People know if they don’t buy it when they see it, that’s it.” Nativewear, Cornell and Moray are among the show resources they planned to use for sweaters and other immediate items.
Jessica Portnoy, buyer for the Urban Yoga Center, New York, which is expanding its apparel offerings, said she offers limited merchandise and rotates it regularly to keep customers interested.
“If you have too much on display, it’s overwhelming and it becomes part of the scenery,” she said. “If there’s too much to pick from, people can’t be bothered.” She said she plans to order tiny T-shirts, tank tops and long-sleeved T-shirts in prints and solids from CG Designs.
One buyer shopping the show with a specific niche in mind was Robert Groves, looking for eco-friendly clothing for his Planet Hemp, a store that should open in SoHo in July.
He said he would order hemp dresses and separates from Love Tent and Mat Mi Thai Imports.

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