WESTERN WEAR SHOW: BASICS HELP VENDORS STAY IN SADDLE
Byline: Jean E. Palmieri
DENVER — While remaining cautious, western wear retailers turned out in force last weekend at the Denver International Western/English Apparel & Equipment Market.
They combed the booths at the Merchandise Mart in search of new vendors and new ideas to tempt consumers. Shopping lists included merchandise for at-once, summer and fall, as stores left paper for everything from jeans and boots to accessories and hats. Most retailers spent their customary open-to-buy, but they did admit to shopping the market more carefully than usual to avoid costly mistakes.
One trend that emerged at the show, which wrapped up its five-day run on Tuesday, was a return to basics. Gone are the days of loud prints and patterns. Instead, western vendors mirrored the rest of the apparel industry by showcasing traditional looks that fit comfortably with the outdoor lifestyle.
“There’s no natural growth or ebullience to the business, but I’m hopeful we’ll do well,” said Les Ball, chief executive officer of Corral West Ranchwear, a 48-unit chain based in Cheyenne, Wyo. “I have no sense of a great rebirth of the western business, and there are a lot of negative factors out there, but I’m optimistic.”
Ball, a longtime veteran of traditional retailing at Macy’s and Montgomery Ward, has been chief of Corral West since the summer. The firm managed to end 1994 “up a little bit,” he said, thanks in large part to a December when sales increased in the low double digits.
“We did better than we planned in the fall, and so much of what we’ve done is working. I’m hopeful that if we work hard and pay attention to the customer, our business will continue to grow,” Ball continued.
Dick Fish, general merchandise manager of Corral West, noted that the denim business has been “exceptional,” adding, “Wrangler has been on fire and some of the new products we’ve brought in have been working.”
Lee jeans for women and an expanded presentation of Levi’s tops and bottoms have been “very successful,” Fish noted.
Ball said that after he and his buyers get an overview at the show here, the chain would place its summer orders within 30 days.
Jim McClure, co-owner of Drysdales in Tulsa, Okla., admitted that holiday business was tough.
“The experience of western retailers is the same as regular retailers,” he said. “We had a softness in outerwear because there’s been no cold weather in Oklahoma. The only thing worse than a warm December is a warm January.”
Despite the balmy weather, which has cut into business for retailers from coast to coast, Drysdales ended last year with an increase.
“We had a gain for 1994,” said Chris Schwier, another partner. “If you add our store and catalog together, we had a good year.”
Both men view 1995 as a year of great opportunity.
“You just have to work harder and not get too relaxed,” Schwier said. “We tend to sit back and just ride the winners, but we need to get back to really working at the business again. The opportunities are fantastic, because there’s no clear direction and it’s our job to go out and be creative.”
At Drysdales, the jeans business has been solid, along with leathers.
“The shirt business is coming back,” Schwier added, “and our boot business has been good.”
At the show, Shwier and McClure bought at-once merchandise as well as summer and fall in all categories — men’s, women’s and children’s apparel, gifts, and boots.
“But we’re buying very cautiously,” McClure said. “We’re looking at everything twice. And we’re buying as close to the vest as we can.”
Among the items that tempted the partners to leave paper in Denver were men’s leathers for the third quarter, men’s shirts for June-July delivery, summer fashion jeans for women and new T-shirt ideas for at-once, McClure said.
Susan Bennett, a buyer for the three-unit Teners in Oklahoma City, said that although 1994 was a struggle, “we’ve worked harder and it has paid off.”
“We did some things differently and it’s worked,” she added. “We found that people didn’t want low-quality goods anymore. Instead, they want better goods, and they’re willing to pay more for something that will last.”
Bennett expects to work even harder this year as shoppers search high and low for value.
Teners has done well with leather apparel, high-end jewelry and boots, and she was shopping the Denver market for more of the same.
“And the better manufacturers are stepping up to the plate,” she said. At the show, Bennett purchased belts, women’s jewelry and leather outerwear for men.
“Vests are hot for men and women,” she noted. “They were in 1994, and we think that will continue going forward. It offers a good look, but it’s not as expensive as a jacket.”
Larry DeGray, general manager of Billy Martin’s in New York and Los Angeles, characterized 1994 as “good but not great.” However, he is convinced that 1995 will be marked by strong sales.
“Boots are making a comeback and grunge is dead,” he said. “Upscale merchandise will do well, and people with money will be looking for nice, unique things” — the kind of merchandise for which Billy Martin’s is known, he said.
DeGray admitted that his company will have to fight for the business in 1995.
“It’s not like the Eighties, when the business came to us, but if we pick the right merchandise and offer the real specialized items, [we’ll do well.] And that’s what we’re going to be concentrating on,” he said.
Alex Chlebek, owner of Hats ‘n Hides in Bloomingdale, Ill., said he experienced a softening of the business in 1994.
“I’ve been in business for four years, and while 1993 was a growth year, things leveled off in 1994,” he said. “I’m hoping that 1995 will be a little better than last year.”
Top sellers for this company, which operates one store and two boutiques in western nightclubs, include his-and-hers sets for western dancers, boots, hats and accessories.
“But you have to be selective and give the customers what they want,” Chlebek noted. “You have to be careful not to buy the wrong merchandise.”
At the Denver market, he purchased “sexier stuff” for women, featuring cutouts, and even picked up some bustiers.
“It’s racy, but I’ll try it,” he said.
Darrel Watson, owner of Watsonatta Western World in Boone, N.C., said that despite a “couple of off months, 1994 wound up being good.” Helping to boost his spirits was a last-minute surge in sales in the three days before Christmas.
Current top sellers include men’s and women’s shirts, denim and hats. However, because of the warm weather, the firm’s outerwear business has been “terrible,” Watson said.
At the show, Watson picked up more men’s and women’s shirts but was steering clear of outerwear.
Looking to this year, he predicted: “I think it will be OK. The business will be there, but it will be a little harder to get.”