DO EARLY GOODS CATCH THE CUSTOMER?

Byline: Melanie Kletter / Shirliey Fung

NEW YORK — In Chicago, cold weather comes in while the Cubs are still cracking the bat at Wrigley Field, and stays until they take the diamond once again in early spring.
But many retailers don’t want to hear about the long chill. Increasingly, stores in some segments of the market — particularly the big volume moderate and better areas — are starting to put spring goods on the floor as much as two months earlier than a couple of years ago.
But by ignoring the temperature outside, retailers are often leaving customers like Jae-Ha Kim, a newspaper journalist, scrounging for cold weather apparel even while snow is still falling outside.
“I went to Lands’ End and department stores and could not find silk turtleneck undershirts. They already have tiny camisoles,” she said recently. “It’ll be cold in Chicago through May. I understand how stores go by seasons, but in certain markets like New York and the Midwest they should cater to the weather.”
Merchandising the first shipments of spring in December or even as early as November, instead of January and February as in years past, is gaining momentum in mainstream chains such as Bealls Department Stores of Bradenton, Fla., Gottschalks of Fresno, Calif., and Draper’s & Damon’s, based in Irvine, Calif.
Ann Caruso, a better buyer at the Doneger Group buying office in New York, said she has noticed that, on better floors, deliveries have been trending forward at least three to four weeks over the last few years.
While this puts added pressure on vendors to gear up early, the change is an overall positive for the industry, she said.
“It’s good because it forces retailers to mark down and move out old goods,” Caruso said. “My philosophy is to cut losses early and quickly, and move on to new, fresh merchandise.”
While moderate and better are bringing in seasonal merchandise earlier, the designer sector has had more difficulties this year getting its merchandise in stores on time, let alone early. Timing problems are plaguing many segments of the industry this year. The fashion show calendar has been pushed up so that fall collections are being shown before even a hint of spring is in the air, and almost a year before the items on display will actually be in stores.
At the same time, many of the current spring fashions in the designer and bridge segments have been delivered later than usual, putting extra pressure on retailers. After a tough fall and difficult holiday period, many stores sought to bring spring merchandise in early to generate some momentum. However, designers haven’t been exactly collaborating with their plans.
“I wanted to get rid of fall and was ready to bring in spring early, but the designers all shipped late this year,” said Mauro Farinelli, owner of Farinelli’s, an upscale boutique in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Va., which carries designer and bridge lines. “I had a period where literally half my store was completely barren. Without a doubt, people are shipping late this year. Even now, I am still waiting for a ton of stuff.”
Retailers and vendors cited a number of reasons for the late deliveries, including delays in shipments from fabric mills and a tight production schedule, especially for many European firms.
Since New York moved ahead of Europe on the fashion calender in September 1999, many executives have grumbled about the earlier time slots and the pressure it puts on them to get collections finished sooner. Nonetheless, even with the accelerated time frame, many designers have said they don’t want to fall back into their old position of following London, Milan and Paris.
The junior and contemporary markets are a different story where many vendors prefer to show their fashions as late as possible. Since market week occurs practically once a month, manufacturers are constantly updating new merchandise and showing looks later in the season to stay on top of trends. Even now, while the higher-end firms are well immersed in fall, many junior vendors are entering fall sales.
Richard Clareman, president of junior tops company Self Esteem, said his company is still concentrating on warm-weather fashions.
“You have to be late in this market,” he said. “I like to write orders as late as possible. To be successful, you have to have no inventory, have fast turn and have good knowledge of what is going on at retail.”
Ken Weiss, president at Easel, a contemporary knitwear company, concurred, but said production schedules demand earlier planning at times, especially for importers.
“We are always discussing timing issues in our office,” Weiss said. “As an importer, we have to be that much more mindful in planning. Designers want as much time as possible to be able to stay on top of trends, while production people have their own agenda.
“It seems to be getting worse every year,” he added. “You can never have enough time.”
Junior and contemporary retailers also face increased pressure from quick-turn chains such as Hennes & Mauritz, Zara and Limited Express to offer trendy fashions at a faster pace and not plan collections so far in advance.
However, in some tiers earlier shipments have become de rigueur. Michael Sands, president of moderate sportswear firm Lasting Impressions, added that as the retail industry increasingly consolidates, the earlier time frame has become a necessity for many stores.
“Major retailers have to buy further out,” he said. “It was easy with a 30-to-50-store chain. Now with 200 stores, chains have to plan earlier and get merchandise in earlier. The larger these chains get, the more difficult it is to respond quickly.”
These early shipments often add difficulties to the production schedules of vendors.
“We have to push piece goods people to get ready earlier,” said Sands. “Sometimes they’re not ready with their lines and we have to stay on top of things more.”
Sands believes that in today’s quick-turnaround environment, although domestic production has higher costs, it is one of the keys to staying competitive. Lasting Impressions manufactures 50 percent of its goods in the U.S. and this helps the company meet the quicker turn. Sands noted that items take three or four months of lead time to produce abroad, while the time shrinks to one to two months if produced in the U.S.
For better manufacturer Tommy Bahama, the increased cycle, especially in regard to the last deliveries before the end of the year, have been what Tony Margolis, president of the company, called, “a little bit of an aggravation.”
Since Tommy Bahama imports its apparel, year-end quotas dictate that spring shipping is typically put on hold until January, which means that product cannot be in stores until February. To combat this problem, Margolis said that two years ago his company started developing a group of products that ships to stores in December.
“This has served us very well,” he said. “Our product sells very well, especially in resort locations. If we don’t get our [spring] goods to retailers until February, they’ve lost a third of the season.”
Margolis added that spring goods are selling well, early even in cold-weather locations, because customers are buying for vacations.
“It’s important to get product into stores earlier and earlier,” he said. “February used to be a clean-out month. Now January is the month to dispose of old inventory.”
Early selling has also forced vendors to increase the number of shipments they make.
“It makes our job more difficult to have certain sections of the country turning floor at different times,” said Marc Abramson, vice president of moderate sportswear firm Requirements. “You have to create new product each time because it’s hard to ship new product a month earlier to half of the country.”
The regional climactic differences have led to a situation where retailers in certain locales are bringing in seasonal merchandise at staggered times, forcing vendors to produce additional merchandise. Even with the added headache of designing a product specifically for 20 to 30 percent of his customers, Abramson believes early merchandising is good for the industry.
“The bottom line is, if the retailer is successful, then in the end it benefits us both,” he said. “The strategy of turning the floor earlier is a good strategy. If there is less inventory going into a season, then it’s easier to change to the new product. It’s more profitable. I don’t think that the timing can be too early, but it can certainly be too late.”

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