GAINING SPACE AND SPARKLE
NEW YORK — The Off-Price Specialist Show is bursting at the seams. It will stage its fifth edition in June in new quarters at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center here.
Just 2 1/2 years after its debut, the show has developed enough of a following that the organizers are moving to larger space in the center and planning some glitzy events to entertain vendors and buyers at the June 4-7 expo. While not yet as large as the twice-yearly Las Vegas version of the show, this edition is expected to pull in a larger group of national and international buyers.
Those buyers are looking not just for new resources and trends, but also for new ways of doing business. The Internet is affecting the off-price sector, just as it has every other retail format. Sites promising to help manufacturers get rid of their excess inventory are springing up regularly, and some will be exhibiting at the show. Retailers have to compete against mass market resources that have major ad budgets to get their message to the consumer.
The show is planning to help its visitors with not just new merchandise, but new information from its Web site.
It’s also planning some post-show partying. While the New York show might lack the proximity to schmaltzy entertainment of its Las Vegas counterpart, that doesn’t mean visitors will be neglected, according to executives at the show’s headquarters.
“We’re pulling out all the stops for this show,” said Bill Jage, president of the Off-Price Specialist Center, which produces the show. “We’re going to have a party with top-notch entertainment and celebrity visits and amenities that the buyers and exhibitors need to make New York a profitable place to be in June.”
This year, the show has moved from the Javits’s north pavilion — a high tech tent attached to the building — inside to one of the main halls. It is offering a free breakfast to early-morning guests and has added an extra day to the schedule, which will overlap with the International Fashion Boutique Show, also at Javits. That show runs from June 3 to 6.
“We think that will be very helpful for us,” said Bob Nordstrom, managing editor of Off-Price Apparel magazine, which is produced by the show.
“Business right now has been good for retailers, and so it has been good for us,” he said of the show’s expansion. So far, 197 booths are booked, which represents a 25 percent increase over the October show. As for expected attendance, he said the buyer pool was expanding to include more mainstream accounts and mom-and-pop stores, as well as the usual group of off-price retailers.
European attendance is expected to increase at this edition of the show, he added. The Internet, which is growing in importance in the off-price world as a business-to-business tool as well as an outlet for excess inventory, will also have a presence through a handful of exhibitors.
Categories at the show will include women’s and men’s apparel, children’s wear, hosiery, branded and nonbranded apparel and accessories. Most of the exhibitors are jobbers who own their inventory of goods — typically, factory overruns, closeouts, out-of-season merchandise and graded irregulars at 30 to 70 percent below wholesale.
The number of buyers and their demographic range have also been growing.
“We have had a fairly large increase in foreign buyers,” Nordstrom said. “We’re also attracting more mainstream buyers, who see that we can offer them great deals.”
Off-Price has been building up its marketing plan and sending out postcards, flyers and stickers to past and potential visitors.
Overall, retailers say it’s a good time to be in the off-price business, despite the struggles of such classic names as Filene’s Basement and Loehmann’s. Others, such as TJX stores, are doing well. As reported in these columns, the 28-year-old retailer Burlington Coat Factory Outlet, which is a regular visitor to the show, is adding 26 more sites this year to its existing 280. And the show, with its mix of vendors, helps buyers find a wider selection of merchandise to appeal to an increasingly finicky consumer who is being tempted by the arrival of such inexpensive retailers as Old Navy and H&M.
Asante Truong, who buys men’s and children’s apparel for the Factory-2-U store in San Diego, finds the show useful.
“I can see a lot of people in a short amount of time,” said Truong, who comes to New York to shop the market every six or eight weeks.
Randy Fisher, owner of the The Underwearhouse in Miami, said of the last show, “Our experience was very positive. We were able to meet and purchase from about five new vendors whom we met at the show… I think they’re going to be terrific resources for us.” Lisa Polansky, who has run a signature store in Brooklyn for 26 years, praised the selection at the last edition of the show. In general, she said, she shops the show for the prices and because it saves time.
“Otherwise, I would have to go to all my vendors and ask for their closeouts.” Commenting on the last show, she said, “There was a great selection and I did very well. I found some great deals and made a lot of new contacts.”
Great selection is becoming even more important, retailers said. Not only is there competition from low-price retailers, but mass market sources such as Target and Kohl’s are marketing hip apparel at competitive prices with major TV ad campaigns.
And then there’s the Internet. That is becoming a hot topic for off-price retailers, as it is with most businesses, said Nordstrom. As consumers discover they can comparison shop on the Web, brick-and-mortar retailers have to find ways to lure shoppers away from their computers and compete with the advertising budgets of the usually well-financed, savvy Internet entrepreneurs — or they have to find ways to work with the online resources.
One example of the recent entries to the online off-price crowd is CloseOutNow.com, which handles excess inventory by allowing customers to bid on it, much like auction sites such as Ebay. CloseOutNow.com kicked off its opening last week with a charity auction — benefitting ovarian cancer research and support — that featured a fashion show of designer merchandise available through the site.
“The Internet has become a very big thing,” Nordstrom explained.
“It kind of exploded in the last show, when we had four or five Internet companies exhibiting,” up from none the previous season.
Nordstrom is expecting about the same number for this edition of the show, including companies such as VirtualRags.com.
And, according to Nordstrom, Off-Price Specialist isn’t sitting still on the Internet issue. The company, which currently has an informational Web site, is developing a site that will give vendors more information. He said he did not expect it to become an e-tailing site, though.
“There has been a lot of discussion about how to use it, and we are now in the process of building a Web site that will serve as a business-to-business site that will work off our vendors.”