TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Byline: Elaine Glusac
CHICAGO — Many Midwest merchants say timing deliveries to demand is an important buying strategy. While trendy stores lead boldly with early deliveries, several department and specialty stores seek goods closer to season.
Other buying strategies differ by store type. For example, department stores are increasing their private label business and trying to tap the casual career market, specialty stores are digging deeper for unique resources, and mass merchants are paying more attention to what’s on the designer runways, exploiting fashion to mine narrow but deep with inexpensive, trendy items.
For the more fashion-forward stores, the season begins early. Joan Weinstein, owner of Ultimo and a string of designer shops on Chicago’s pricy Oak Street, often buys on preview to get early deliveries. Fall merchandise is on the floor by June.
“I have a fashion customer, and fashion customers buy early,” Weinstein said. “They read about fashion in Women’s Wear Daily and the magazines, and they want merchandise in the beginning of the season so if it needs alterations they can have them done and they’re set.”
When sales jumped over 20 percent in 1993, Weinstein increased her spring open-to-buy 10 percent, with similar plans for fall.
Similarly, Toshiro, a contemporary shop on Chicago’s North Side, recently moved its delivery schedule up to appeal to fashion-forward tastes, beginning with spring in mid-January and February and planning fall for late June and July. Buyer Yvonne Williams said her key strategy is buying against the tide. “I watch what’s going out because the opposite comes in.”
Her passion is seeking out smaller lines to bring home. “I don’t like to see what other people have [on their racks]. I get names you never see in Chicago. Boutiques should be special.”
To implement her strategy, Williams is in the process of selling off Toshiro’s inventory of widely available Calvin Klein underwear and replacing it with intimate lines like La Perla, Only Hearts, Cosa Bella and Faith.
Though trendy, the shop keeps a close watch on price.
“Trends are great if you’re buying cheap and small,” said Williams. “But clothes with quality and a sense of timelessness sell bigger. You would pay $300 for a jacket…if it’s not going out next season.”
But at $33 retail, terry cloth minis by Lucie & Co. “blow out of the store,” she said. Other popular lines include Parallel, Brazeau Tricot and Flax.
Meanwhile, less trendy shops are looking for later deliveries. Corinne Stefanson, owner of The Classic, a moderate-to-designer store in Moorhead, Minn., tries to gratify her customers on demand. “I never buy anything I can’t sell the day it comes in the store,” she said. “I’ll have no wools in August. I buy Sept. 1 for fall. After three weeks, people think they’re old and expect sales.”
Aware that department stores are her competition, Stefanson stocks The Classic with specialty designers and mixed lines rather than whole collections. “I never want my customer to look like she just walked off the rack,” she said.
Her variety of real-world looks include Delah McKay jackets, Zelda dresses, Kenar suits and Ballinger Gold sportswear.
At the specialty-store-driven Chicago Apparel Center, pressure for later deliveries led management to move its fall market back from March to April two years ago.
“I’ve heard from retailers and from reps that stores prefer to buy closer to the season,” said Susan McCullough, marketing vice president of the Apparel Center.
The result of the change and some heavy promotion: “The last two fall markets had the best attendance in years,” she said, noting the steady rise peaked last year at 13 percent over 1993.
The issue of timing deliveries also has hit the department stores. According to Phil Kelly, senior vice president and general manager, women’s wear, for Jacobson’s, the Michigan-based specialty department store: “We want to be as wear-now focused as possible. We’re trying to break receipts down to look at patterns so we’re not front-loading the departments.”
He said buying at Jacobson’s is influenced by “history, to a degree,” noting the store appeals to traditional tastes in better-to-designer merchandise. But even Jacobson’s traditional customer has been relaxing her silhouettes. “Our customer used to be more classic. Now, she’s not contemporary, but she wants softer clothes.” With an open-to-buy up 3 to 4 percent for fall, the store is planning “aggressively” in soft, coordinated sportswear and petite dresses. Some of Jacobson’s best-selling lines are its private brands, six in all. Its popular bridge line, Leyla Mitra, appeals to shoppers of Dana Buchman and Ellen Tracy, which are both top-selling lines there.
“We look at private label as different inventory, not from a markup point of view, but as something that’s not available elsewhere,” said Kelly. Jacobson’s plans to increase its private label business with handbags, shoes and accessories.
Top management at Carson Pirie Scott, the Milwaukee-based department store chain, recently set a long-term goal to increase its private label business by 15 percent, according to Bill Lasche, fashion director.
Carson’s casual label, Great Lakes Recreation, is one of its fastest selling lines, as are better brands like Liz Claiborne and Jones NY Sport, which appeal as weekend and work wear.
Lasche hopes these lines will fill the demand for casual career looks. “The big question is what can you sell to fit in for career and off hours,” said Lasche. “But just how casual is casual? It’s a big opportunity if you can get a handle on it.”
Other bestsellers at Carson’s are knitwear, Alfred Dunner coordinates, Fundamental Things blazers and Briggs pants.
At Carson’s, as elsewhere, timing is important. “The customer doesn’t buy until there’s a need for it,” said Lasche, noting that Carson’s has been pushing its delivery dates back to match those needs. “You don’t put out goods months before the weather allows you to wear them.”
Mass merchants program season changes with color. At Venture, the Missouri-based mass merchandiser, June deliveries will consist of summer-weight pieces in darker colors to transition into fall, said Gregory Blow, director of fashion merchandising and product development.
“Fleece in August doesn’t sell,” he said.
At this level, apparel is driven by a perceived-value philosophy. Blow cites baby T’s as an example. “You can get a lot of fashion for not a lot of money, so who cares if it doesn’t last until next year,” he said.
Some trends — like the shapely, structured suit — can’t be translated at mass prices. In general, it is the casual trends that do well in this market.
Items are the cornerstone of mass merchandising. “We look for pieces that stand on their own,” said Blow. “Dresses are usually an assortment business, but we will go for the most meaningful items in it, the most fashion volume oriented items.
“It’s vital to be trend-right,” he said, especially when committing to 100,000 units of one item, a typical quantity.
“The Nineties are still about value,” said Blow. “Customers want fashion and value and performance and great price. So we do key trends very fast. They don’t want basics.”