Byline: Rusty Williamson

Not only is the fashion cycle speeding up in the designer tiers, but the moderate segment is seeing a growing push to get new looks out on the selling floors earlier, as well.
Merchandising the first shipments of fall in June or even May, instead of the more typical July and August time that goods first hit the retail racks, is gaining momentum among a growing number of moderate chains such as Bealls Department Stores of Bradenton, Fla., and Gottschalks, based in Fresno, Calif.
“We’ve been bringing in merchandise early for some time, but now it’s evolving to come in earlier and earlier — at least two to three months earlier than we’ve done historically,” said Gary Gladding, executive vice president at Gottschalks. “It’s always a challenge to find the right balance of goods on the selling floor. But women want options, and that’s what we’re offering.”
Though based on opposite sides of the country, both retailers believe that offering moderate shoppers multiseasonal choices will equate to more sales, especially in milder climates.
“Early receipt means that we can offer women what they want to buy — when they want to buy it,” said Conrad Szymanski, president of the 70-unit Beall’s operation.
Szymanski said the retailer’s private label program, which includes brands such as Coral Bay, Paradise Bay and Bay Studio, is a big part of its early delivery program.
“We can customize everything just for us,” he said. “We work hard to keep our floors reflective of what people want to wear today.”
“At Bealls, if we’re going to start a program, we need to do it early. Goods that are received early start checking quickly. We often sell out and that works to our benefit.”
For Gottschalks, which has 87 stores across Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, making early delivery work is a balancing act that must factor in inventory, markdown and budget considerations.
But Gladding believes it’s a risk that has potentially great rewards, especially in milder climates where merchandise changes are dictated more by color and fabric weight than silhouettes.
“The earlier that you can get a reasonable delivery and check on a good, the better your position to believe in the merchandise,” Gladding said. “The value of early delivery is that you can begin to test the sell-through and make adjustments.”
Replenishment is a key part of those adjustments. Gladding said that if a key item sells out early, he has enough time to put in a sizable reorder to meet consumer demand.
However, replenishment is not the only goal. Early delivery can also help put a retailer ahead of the curve on a hot trend, making the store a source and destination for fashion seekers. For example, Gladding said, if Gottschalks sells out of a plaid in June, the store can bring in a new print.
“You do better with early release when you always have a veneer of newness to attract consumer’s attention,” he explained.
Gladding added that multiseason merchandising can also be a barometer to gauge trends in their infancy and help deflect consumers’ attention away from clearance merchandise to full-price offerings, especially in the transition from holiday to spring and summer to fall.
Smaller stores are keeping an open mind about early delivery and have found the practice to be most helpful when targeted to specific customers.
“The only reason I would carry a line before the actual selling season is to help women who travel and might need an alternate wardrobe,” said Peggy Arrendondo, owner of Peggy’s Fashions, located in New Philadelphia, Ohio, which is close to Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
“In retailing, you have to pay for merchandise up front and then the budget is tied up,” Arrendondo said. “Taking in goods too early can create headaches. Basically, I’m against it.”
Not all stores are going the early bird route.
Frederick Mershad, chairman and chief executive officer at 67-unit Elder-Beerman, said women visit his stores an average of 16 times a year and that they want to see fresh merchandise on every trip, not something that’s languished awhile.
“We bring in apparel when the customer wants to buy it,” Mershad said. “Many of our stores are in smaller communities, and if we receive something months in advance and they’re not ready to buy it, they see it over and over again.”
For manufacturers, the early delivery debate is shadowed by a different set of concerns, including concurrently juggling production of two or three seasonal collections, while maintaining a fresh trend perspective.
“The challenges to breaking lines early are multilayered,” said Tanuja Chabra, vice president and designer at Apparel World, a Dallas-based maker of moderate sportswear.
“We’re working ahead to please advance preview or early delivery-minded stores, while also trying to offer collections that will still be trendy and salable when they hit the selling floor,” Chabra said. “It’s a tricky scenario.”
Chabra noted that catalog companies are asking for merchandise even earlier than stores.
“For fall, they usually have a catalog drop in mid-June,” Chabra said. “That means they start planning, shooting and producing the catalog in February or March. So, I’m shipping fall right now to a number of catalog houses.”