DALLAS — The International Apparel Mart’s three-year-old campaign to beef up its bridge offerings is starting to lure specialty stores that haven’t shopped here in years.
“The Mart is doing a great job of attracting better lines hand in hand with stores that haven’t been to Dallas in a long time,” said Mark Attix, vice president of sales for Randy Kemper Corp., which started showing its line here a year ago. “It’s halfway between New York and Los Angeles, so that makes it easy for everybody.”
Three years ago, faced with declining attendance and tenants who were threatening to move out, the Mart began courting bridge resources. Lines that have since leased showrooms or contracted reps include Emanuel, Zang Toi, Helen Hsu, Randy Kemper, Sully Bonnelly, Byron Lars and Lilli Butler.
“As we’ve targeted the manufacturing and retail base to grow the bridge area, it’s become one of the key selling points for the market center,” asserted Cindy Morris, executive vice president of the Dallas Market Center Co.
“We think the market is opening up in Dallas,” said Alison Cohen, sales manager for Zang Toi, which showed here for the first time in June. “Our first market was good. We opened up seven or eight specialty stores and sold Neiman Marcus.”
Last April, the Mart created the International Suite, a showroom shared by nine bridge lines, including Chloe-Valentine ready-to-wear, Andrew Marc leather outerwear, three sportswear and knitwear lines of Gruppo Linea, three lines represented by Lino Puccio, and Dino Valiano. Jim Gray, vice president of leasing for the Mart, expects to expand the International Suite by October.
Other bridge collections with an established presence here have invested in bigger showrooms. Tahari, for example, last year sank several hundred thousand dollars into a new showroom that boasts a bonsai garden and a waterfall.
“We feel that Dallas is the primary regional market,” noted Tom Murry, president of Tahari. “We wanted a strong presence there not only for specialty stores, but for major stores that we do business with there, like Neiman Marcus and Dillard’s.”
So far, it seems to be paying off; Tahari’s bookings in Dallas are up 40 percent this year.
Jax by Ron Leal, a bridge sportswear line based in Vancouver, Canada, moved into a bigger showroom at the Mart in June. “We were also showing in Atlanta and Los Angeles, but we’ve found that New York and Dallas cover the significant opportunities to develop business and service the customers we have,” noted Day Dickinson, Southwest sales manager. “My volume is at least 30 percent of the company volume.”
Jax, whose American headquarters is in New York, late last year pulled its line from the Atlanta and Los Angeles marts.
Nicole Miller did $14.5 million in sales from its showroom here last year. “Dallas is running a little ahead of everybody else this year,” noted Bud Konheim, president. He pointed out that Dallas has had the advantage of a smooth winter without such natural disasters as the snowstorms in the Northeast or the earthquake in Los Angeles.
This year, the Mart began working harder to entice better specialty stores, wooing them with imported chocolates, international coffees and free airfare.
Jeri Rice, president of Helen’s Of Course in Seattle, visited the Mart last June for the first time in six years.
“I thought it was fabulous,” she enthused. “It’s very difficult for an individual merchant to find new resources without using a buying office, and this gave me the chance in one place to see accessories and clothing and to wander in on things I would never get the opportunity to see in New York. I’ll go back to Dallas, probably twice a year.”
“I used to shop there years ago, and I quit because of time and expense factors,” said Ruth McManus, owner of Who’s Who shops in Albany, Ga., and Birmingham, Ala. She gave the Mart a second chance in June when the Mart offered her free airfare.
“I was pleased to find a lot of new lines there that I do not find in Atlanta,” McManus observed. “I plan to go back, but it would help if they gave us an incentive.”
Further big incentives are unlikely, Morris said. “We tell the buyers, ‘We’ll bring you in one time because we want you to see the building, but after that, we feel the lines will sell themselves.”‘
The Mart has hit lists of 100 VIP stores and about 500 prospect stores in each category that it represents, including better-to-bridge apparel, swimwear, plus sizes and children’s wear. These lists were developed with exhibitors, who told Mart management what stores they would like to see shopping here.
Michelle Hopson, senior manager of retail development, phones VIP stores before markets and visits them at least every year. She also visits prospect stores in hopes of turning them into regular shoppers.
Last year, the Mart counted 35,000 visits by stores. This year, attendance has slipped 3 to 5 percent, but the Mart attributes that to its buyer requalification program that started in October to weed out sample shoppers and other nonretail visitors.
Claimed Robbin Wells, vice president of marketing for the Dallas Market Center: “What we’re focusing on will build attendance back within a year because we’re focusing on stores with credit and open-to-buy that our exhibitors want to see.”