Byline: Arthur Friedman

NEW YORK — Exhibitors set for the Private Label Expo next month have no hesitancy in admitting the business is more competitive than ever — thanks to the ever-increasing consolidation of retailing.

Still, the interest in private label appears higher than ever and is fueling the growth of this event. Scheduled for Oct. 17-19 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, the show will boast more than 400 exhibitors, compared with about 200 last year, according to Vincent Schimel, manager of the show for The Schimel Co.

A growing spread of international exhibitors will be a key feature.

Underscoring the show’s potential impact, Steven Schatzberg, executive vice president and a partner in Certified Fashion Guild buying office, said this edition of Private Label Expo “could mean more than ever.”

“Private label is getting more and more important,” Schatzberg said. “Retail business is very difficult right now, with competition tougher than ever between discounters and department and specialty stores. The stores are trying to find as much private product as possible — in the form of good salable merchandise.”

“I’m going to the show with my eyes open, looking for a little bit of everything,” said Nancy Kaplan, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue, who oversees the store’s private label programs.

Kaplan said SFA’s private label business is outperforming its branded business. Key areas include a cashmere program sold under the Saks Fifth Avenue Collection label, the casual Real Clothes collection and the career-oriented The Works collection.

“We look for a combination of quality, price, production capability and design input,” Kaplan said. “We want to develop product that is exclusive to the store and offers the customer good value as well.”

Main areas of sourcing for Saks are Hong Kong, Italy and China, Kaplan said, because those areas have a proven track record for quality and delivery.

Meanwhile, the trade show will add to its international contingent exhibition booths from the governments of Costa Rica, Mauritius and Pakistan, which join returnees from Israel and Mexico, as well as several firms from the traditional production powerhouse countries of Italy and Hong Kong. Eastern European manufacturers will also be newly represented.

“The Israelis did a very meticulous job of promoting their booth last year, and a lot of other countries took note of that,” said Schimel.

Yet, he stressed, domestic sourcing will still be strongly represented.

“There are two sides to this show,” Schimel said. “There’s the excitement of the growing international sourcing firms, but there’s a also a strong presence from domestic manufacturers. The American Apparel Manufacturers Association is very involved in the show, and there’s a good feeling that there is a mix of American-made merchandise as well as importers and sourcing firms.”

Buyer registration is projected to be around 10,000, Schimel said, up from the 6,000 product development executives from department stores, catalog houses, buying offices, specialty stores and national chains that attended the show last year. Private Label Expo was revived in 1993 after a five-year absence and organizers plan to make it an annual event.

Schimel said advance registration shows a strong contingent of buyers coming from Hungary and other Eastern European countries, who are also represented by sourcing exhibitors.

The show features women’s, men’s and children’s apparel manufacturers and other service-oriented companies. Once again, it is one of five trade shows making up Fashion Week at the Javits Center, which also includes The International Fashion Fabric Exhibition, The International Fashion Boutique Show, The International Kids Fashion Show and The National Association of Men’s Sportswear Buyers Show.

Private Label Expo and Fashion Fabric Exhibition, which is produced by The Larkin Group, are holding two joint luncheon seminars. One on Oct. 18, called “How to Effectively Implement a Private Label Program,” is sponsored by the AAMA’s production and contracting committee, and the other the next day, titled “Meeting Increased Retailer Demands Without Increasing Costs,” is also sponsored by the AAMA.

The U.S. Department of Commerce will provide information through its foreign buyers program, and will operate from an international buyers lounge.

For exhibitors, the show is an opportunity to formulate new business, work with existing accounts and network with other vendors.

Robert A. Cohen, senior merchandise manager, apparel division, Mitsubishi International Corp., the U.S. arm of the Tokyo-based trading company, said the growth of private label has been somewhat inhibited by retail consolidations among the major department stores.

“There’s a tug of war between brands and private label, and there are fewer and fewer key players,” Cohen said.

Catalogs offer the greatest potential, Cohen said, as existing books grow and new ones join the field. Cohen cited Lands’ End as a large account for Mitsubishi.

The company sources most of its merchandise in the Far East, Cohen said, and delivers goods — mostly sweaters, knitwear, woven tops and bottoms, outerwear and technical apparel — to the U.S. duty paid.

Exhibiting at Private Label Expo for the first time, the company hopes to network with new and existing customers, Cohen said.

Richard Waxman, vice president of sales for the Scotch Maid division of Sara Lee Corp., said the company’s private label business is “very strong,” from the mass market level to better catalog houses.

Scotch Maid makes private label bodywear and activewear for retailers and some manufacturers as well, with catalog business the fastest growing area, Waxman said.

“The primary reason we’re going to exhibit at the show is to open new accounts,” Waxman said. “We’re probably the largest private label maker in our category, and the main reason is because of our domestic Quick Response capabilities. We offer a five-day turnaround on reorders, which is rare in private label.”

Scotch Maid also sources imported private label, which helps meet price demands on certain products, Waxman said. The lure of global opportunities and the international exposure at Private Label Expo brought Made In America Apparel back to the show this year after a good experience last year, said Gregg Wallace, vice president of sales.

The company produces private label sportswear for stores such as Victoria’s Secret, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom. Two years ago the company started doing men’s sportswear as well for the likes of Today’s Man.

“Private label, like all business, is tough right now,” Wallace said. “It’s very item-driven, and focused on small groups with high volume potential. The nice part about private label is that it’s about building relationships. If that relationship is successful, it has long-term possibilities, whereas stores tend to jump around a lot more with their branded products.”

Jeff Krasnov, president of Gee Kay Knit Products, Allentown, Pa., said four of the company’s top accounts were cultivated by its booth at last year’s show, and he hopes for a similar response this time.

The company, which specializes in cotton knits, started doing private label about 1 1/2 years ago, and “business has exploded ever since,” Krasnov said.

For retailers, Private Label Expo is a chance to check out new companies and areas of sourcing, as they search for private label developers and manufacturers to feed their store brand business.

Further commenting on private label, Schatzberg of Certified Fashion Guild said, “The consumer is bored by the sameness in many stores, and the good retailers are constantly shoving newness in their faces. And much of that comes from private label product that the stores can gear to their particular taste and customer. A good mix of private label and branded merchandise is the right formula, although some stores are successful doing 100 percent private label.”

Schatzberg said even discounters, who had shunned private label in favor of brands in recent years, are turning to private label. Beth Silverstein, divisional merchandise manager for better, bridge and designer apparel at the Doneger Group buying office, said the dynamics of private label business have switched from strictly commodity products to development of exclusive fashion items.

“A lot of people approach us saying they can deliver everything,” Silverstein said. “We tell them we’re looking for people to show us what they can do specifically for us. We look for companies with a design team and product development people, and not just production people.”