STATE OF THE MARKET
A LACKLUSTER ECONOMY IS FORCING SPECIALTY STORE OWNERS TO REEVALUATE THEIR OPEN-TO-BUYS, SPRING ORDERS AND WHICH LINES THEY OFFER SHOPPERS.

Byline: Cami Alexander

WWD chatted recently with a trio of Texas specialty store owners to get an update on the state of retail. The discussion addressed several issues, including open-to-buys, coping with the post-Sept. 11 sluggish economy, important trends and customer shopping patterns. The retailers were: Joann Burnett, Joann’s, Houston; Linda Vela, Linda & Co., Waco, Tex., and Barbara Sledge, Studio Soho, Midland, Tex.

Do you use a formal open-to-buy or purchase by instinct? If you use an open-to-buy, how do you calculate it?

Burnett: “I use a formal open-to-buy, a necessity when buying for five stores. I calculate the numbers based on previous season history by departments/classifications. The instinct comes in when I use my judgment for current trends. For example, I may move money from one department to another, but I am disciplined to not exceed the total budget.”

Vela: “Kind of both. I start out with a business plan, but it’s adjustable. I definitely have a set open-to-buy, but if I see something I love, I’m compelled to buy it. I calculate the open-to-buy based on my previous year’s sales, and divide it up by category, such as formal dresses, sportswear, accessories, pants, skirts and ‘items’. And I hold some back for special orders.”

Sledge: “My buying has always been instinctive. I really just go to buy what I like at the moment. I have a great idea when I go to market what our customers are looking for. For instance, spring break is coming up, and I know where my customers are going.”

Due to the economy and the aftermath of Sept. 11, did you revise or cut back your spring buying? Have you filled in with reorders? Have you dropped any categories?

Burnett: “I did not cut back my spring buy after 9/11. We enjoy a very consistent repeat customer business, so I do not reorder merchandise; instead, I plan my deliveries in 30-day windows, so there is always new product on my selling floor. I have not dropped any categories.”

Vela: “I’m just watching it very carefully. I don’t know that I cut back so much as I’m just keeping a close eye on it. I’m buying a little bit closer to the time I need it. Have I dropped any? No.”

Sledge: “I became more stringent on accurate delivery dates and accepted very few late deliveries, but I did not cut back. All categories have remained the same; however, I refused to fall into the ‘I love New York’ deal because I didn’t want to make dollars off a tragedy.”

Has your business turned around at all since fall? How are you planning your budget for April market — up, down or even with last year — and why? What seasons are you buying?

Burnett: “Fortunately, our business was not dramatically affected by 9/11. We certainly had a week or so of slower business, but managed to make up those numbers in the weeks that followed. My budget for April market is in place and planned slightly up from last year. I believe there is room for a modest amount of growth no matter what the business climate may be. I am currently buying fall.”

Vela: “It’s hard to tell yet. Immediately after Sept. 11, that first week, I could really see a difference. Then I have a large jewelry trunk show every fall, and we had the second largest one we’ve ever had. It’s expensive jewelry, and we did really well with it, which surprised me. Then we saw a little bit of a slowdown in December. My budget [for April market] will probably be even. I will be buying summer and then early fall, like transition.”

Sledge: “Our April budget will increase because we are planning to open a second store in August. Our budget for this original store will probably stay the same — maybe increase a little bit. I will pick up some summer and begin transitional at market in April.”

Are you sticking with best-selling lines or experimenting with new ones?

Burnett: “I always put a big emphasis on our best-selling resources — our customers rely on our consistency of quality-proven resources. However, I experiment with new resources that may be hot items of the season so that we look fresh and current with the market. Those items are usually at better price points, as opposed to bridge prices that remain in the wardrobe for several seasons.

Vela: “I always stick with best-selling lines, and I’m always experimenting. I’m always looking for new lines.”

Sledge: “I want bestsellers for sure, but I always bring in new, fun lines. I’m always looking for something new that no one else has seen.”

What categories and trends will be important for you at the April market?

Burnett: “All categories will be important during the April market, except for a couple of primary resources that use Italian fabrics. Accessories are very important now. There is a tremendous variety in most accessories categories now. Belts, jewelry and handbags are new, fresh and exciting.”

Vela: “I’ll probably be buying sportswear and casual.”

Sledge: “I’m still playing off the sexy prairie. Everything seems like it’s going to ruffles and the prairie look, but it’s a little sexier than the ‘frumpy’ prairie look. We’re going to stick with that.”

What merchandise is hardest for you to find at the Dallas Mart?

Burnett: “Dallas provides a tremendous selection of merchandise. I still go to some of the major shows in New York, but more for an opportunity to get an overview for the upcoming season and to look for the ‘item’ of the season.”

Vela: “Maybe the newest lines and the newest items. That’s not usually at the Dallas market, but you don’t really expect it to be, either.”

Sledge: “European merchandise is the hardest to find. I usually cannot find new stuff in Dallas, so most of the time, I go to L.A. and New York. I used to rarely go to market in Dallas because everyone in Midland goes there.”

What have your customers been telling you they want to add to their wardrobes?

Burnett: “They are having great fun with the novelty T-shirts that are so much fun and available in such a wide variety of fabrics and looks.”

Vela: “I see people now going back to the basics. They’ll buy several pairs of pants or a top they like. We had a sweater right before Christmas that was wonderful and soft, and they bought four or five of it.”

Sledge: “Most still want great jeans. They love everyday wear like great-looking workout clothes. In Midland, women dress. They can just be taking kids to school and going to PTA meetings, but they will outdress everyone in Dallas.”

Editor’s Note: This issue of WWDDallas 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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