THE ART OF THE BUY
A LACKLUSTER ECONOMY IS FORCING RETAILERS TO REEVALUATE THEIR BUYS AND BUDGETS.

Byline: Kelley Buttrick

The Sept. 11 attacks hit retailers’ bottom lines for fall, causing many to adjust buying or cut back on spring goods. At the January market, most buyers were eager for merchandise, as figures started to rally over the holiday season, or earlier.
Other buyers cut back slightly in fall, but are taking a wait-and-see approach, buying closer to season going forward.
WWD Atlanta interviewed the principals of three specialty store about their approach to buying: Rod Cury, owner, Cury’s in Richlands, Va.; Ginna Gilbert, owner of G. Gilbert in Atlanta, and Denise Pugh, buyer, and Allen Israel, owner, Minor Frances, a two-store company in Memphis.

WWD: Do you use an open-to-buy formula, or do you buy by instinct?
Pugh: We have parameters, based on last year’s sales, but more than anything, we try to use our gut. The two must play off each other. We consider climate, economy, market and instinct. If you get bogged down with numbers, you will make mistakes. Gut instinct has played a large part in our success.
Gilbert: My computer helps with determining my open-to-buy, based on last year’s figures, now that we’ve been open a year. I project what I want to do this year over last, then divide the year into 12 months and use those percentages for each individual month. June, July and January are not as good, and March and September are heavier buys. Yet I am not so rigid that I don’t have room for special orders and spontaneous buys throughout the year.
Cury: When I go to market, I have an idea about how much open-to-buy money I have, and I stay within it, but nothing in this business is written in stone. If I don’t see what I want, I won’t spend it all, but I will spend more if it’s warranted. I base my open-to-buy on sales of the previous two years.

WWD: Due to the economy and aftermath of Sept. 11, did you revise your spring budget?
Gilbert: We were more cautious, but didn’t cut back. In the immediate aftermath, we were somewhat affected, but overall, for fall, we were okay. I feel the economy is better than the media depict it. We are on schedule to achieve better than last year, but we didn’t go crazy with a massive projection.
Cury: A few weeks after Sept. 11, people began shopping again for the greatest reason I’ve ever known: “retail therapy.” I did not cut back, but exercised caution. When salesmen began to call, my first instinct was to say, ‘No, I’m okay,’ but in a few weeks, I got on the phone and placed my orders. As my customers loosened up, so did I.
Pugh: We are not going as far forward in our buys. We want to give the customer time to tell us what she likes for spring. For us, it’s more of a time issue than a dollar budget approach.

WWD: What season are you buying now, and are you continuing to be cautious?
Cury: What I saw at the [January] market was exciting and fresh, so I bought. Where fall was available, particularly with European and Canadian lines, I wrote orders.
Pugh: I’m buying for spring through April. While we were shown a lot of merchandise for May delivery, I’m just not interested yet. We need to get through this spring with some exciting merchandise, then regroup for fall.
Gilbert: I will be looking at fall in New York, but am still buying for spring and summer. I will aim at a slightly higher buy than last year.

WWD: Has business rallied since the fall slump?
Pugh: We had some bright spots during the holidays with a good December. While we’ve seen good numbers with items and special occasion, only recently have customers been coming in and buying multiple items.
Israel: Our trunk show orders made in spring-summer arrived and helped boost fall sales. The holiday season continued to help the bottom line, bringing sales even with last year’s figures.
Cury: Starting two weeks before Christmas, sales really picked up. In January, customers bought sale merchandise, which is typical, but I found an optimistic note with spring outfits. We are breaking even now, but certainly not way ahead in sales.
Gilbert: Our business has been pretty steady. We shut down in January to move to a new location, and people are still discovering us, creating a lot of buzz. I think that has kept us close to our projections.

WWD: Are you staying with tried-and-true lines or experimenting with new ones?
Cury: We do both. Our customers come in looking for specific lines, but some of the lines are making style changes. It’s my job to help interpret those looks for the customer.
Gilbert: We are sticking with our winners, but also feel that trying new things is part of what makes us different. In a cautious time, you tend to stick with bestsellers, but you must also give your customers a reason to purchase by offering something different from what they bought last year.
Pugh: We are constantly looking for new lines, but stick with our tried-and-trues as long as they are retailing. We approach each season as a new season.

WWD: Is your buying collection- or item-driven?
Pugh: We buy a lot of collections, but not like we did a year ago. We are putting things together a little differently. We join items to look like three [coordinating] pieces, rather than a suit.
Gilbert: We buy some collections, but enhance them with items. We bring in items so our customers have five or six ways to put things together. They want value for their money and get more versatility.
Cury: Collections are important to me now, but within those collections, there must be exciting and new items. If it’s the same old thing, it will die. Customers want to see an outfit put together with freshness.

WWD: What categories and trends are important now that will carry over into summer-fall?
Gilbert: Denim has been so hot that we are going into it further with screen-printed and glitter stretch denim. We’re not grabbing a junior trend, but it’s an attractive detail for our customers.
Cury: It’s wide open. In betterwear, collections are important, and people who buy better merchandise will want to see a collection for fall and spring.
Pugh: I see fall as item-driven. But, right now, I’m not sure about it, so I’m not buying for May delivery yet.

Editor’s Note: This issue of WWDAtlanta marks the debut of Hot Seat, a feature that lets retailers, showroom owners and other members of the fashion industry share their thoughts on everything from the latest trends to selling strategies to the challenges of building a better business.

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