Byline: Patricia Lowell

For many retailers, deciphering and interpreting trends is a challenge that can be marked with endless pitfalls. Many complain that trends happen so quickly they barely have time to jump on the bandwagon before they feel the need to leap onto the next big thing.
Retailers report that no sooner do they stock merchandise than they turn around to see it in every display window, from the Gap to the Limited Too — only to be replaced a week later by something else.
“I think it’s the number one challenge that retailers face today,” said Lisa Spain, owner of Cotton Club in Houston. “But our attitude has always been to set the trends, not chase after them.”
“There’s no doubt about it, it’s a full-time job to keep on top of the market,” said Cindy Reich, owner of Wink in Houston. “But I don’t see that as a negative. I love the fact that fashion changes so quickly. Our customers like to come in every two weeks and find lots of new things to choose from. They want to see the newest things every time they walk in the door. And I think one of the best parts of this business is scouring the market for new and different talent. That’s the big adventure of the fashion business. So, even though it’s hard work, hunting for new things is what we’re all about.”
According to Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, the quick-turn trends seem to be slowing down — at least for a now.
“Things have been moving pretty quickly for quite a while, but I think we’re actually starting to see a slowing down of the trend cycle,” said Kaner.
“Trends seem to have been more generalized for the last two seasons,” Kaner added. “They come in classifications, like leather, so it’s easier to fit the trend into your mix. You can do leather as jackets, pants — whatever your customer wants. If a trend is a particular item, like a leather jacket, and it doesn’t work for your customer, you’re stuck. The generalizing is actually helping to slow things down and give retailers time to breathe in between trends.”
This generalization also helps retailers with private-label options to create merchandise in quantities and silhouettes designed directly for their customers. Whether it’s a fuller-cut leather pant or a short skirt that is adjusted to hit right above the knee, private label allows retailers to fine-tune a general trend for their clientele.
“Private label is a great way to integrate trends without having to see 10 other stores carrying the exact same thing,” said Kaner. “Those stores that can take advantage of a private-label opportunity are better able to translate a trend into something that works for their customer.”
For other retailers, the best way to deal with rapidly changing, very pervasive trends is with cautious aggression.
“Our philosophy is to jump in first; don’t go berserk and jump out,” said Spain. “We don’t really want to be selling something the moment it hits everywhere else. At that point, we should be through with it. We also have worked very hard over the past 11 years to educate our customers that they need to buy it when they see it, because next week it isn’t going to be here. We flip-flop merchandise very quickly here.”
Reich says that ongoing research and trips to New York every six weeks help her to stay in touch with the market and the preferences of her customers. Buying services also help her to focus on sources that can meet her needs quickly and efficiently and give her a jump on breaking trends.
“You have to be able to look at a trend, like the whole military thing, and have a vision about whether or not it will work for your customer and how much of it they will want to wear,” said Reich. “A lot of times, I buy too little of something and wish that I had more when customers start asking for it. But I’d rather run short than be saturated with something, because we always keep in mind that there’s some new must-have on the horizon every few weeks.”
At Turtletique, Dallas, a bridge specialty store, owner Nancy Diebolt said the best way to handle the rapidly changing trends is not to make them the focus of your business.
“I think a little bit goes a long way as far as trends go,” said Diebolt. “I like trends, and I think our customer is very in tune with which trends are important. But I think that a touch of trend is better to add to a wardrobe rather than change the wardrobe to accommodate the trend. I think it’s much more important to provide the best service and expertise to customers than an endless selection of trends.”
Diebolt also relies on proven winners, such as John Hardy jewelry, to offer customers something new and interesting when they don’t feel the need to participate in the latest camouflage shirt or miniskirt rage.
Retailers agreed that merchandise must always be selected to reflect the unique style and perspective of the store.
“We’re never going to be the Gap,” said Cotton Club’s Spain. “Our customers don’t come to us for that, so if we’re doing a trend that someone else is doing, we make sure that we do it differently and in a way that our customer will appreciate.”
According to Kaner, another way to deal with quick-moving trends is to opt out and instead choose looks that are truly individual.
“There are plenty of designers out there that simply do their own thing regardless of the market’s current direction. Yeolee and Ronaldus Shamask are two examples of designers that operate outside of any trend influence,” said Kaner. “Style doesn’t ever depend exclusively on trend.”