LAST YEAR WAS A TOUGH ONE, BUT MANUFACTURERS HAVE HIGH HOPES FOR 2002.

Better sportswear manufacturers are pinning their hopes on 2002 being drastically different from 2001, a year ravaged by a sluggish economy and dwindling consumer confidence.

Banking on the belief that consumers are ready to shop again, manufacturers said business is bouncing back, albeit not as fast as they may hope. Still, firms are spending more on marketing and advertising, exploring new sourcing possibilities and, of course, keeping a close eye on expenses.

“Sept. 11 was nasty, but we ended the year on a positive note,” said Chris Cornell, who owns Williston, Vt.-based April Cornell, along with his wife, April. “We’re seeing positive changes, but we’re also doing a lot of customer-relationship management work which we hadn’t done nearly as much of in the past.”

What this means is the company, which has a retail division, is retaining pertinent customer information at point of sale and uses that information to specifically market its best customers. Cornell said the company has increased its spending on this effort, but declined to provide figures. The firm has also started a more active markdown management strategy, as well, Cornell said. And after much negotiations with suppliers, its products are about 4 percent lower in price, he said.

“The current climate is demanding this, and we’re being more aggressive,” he said. “And from an internal point of view, we’re more exacting with respect to our employees.” The line features women’s and children’s clothing and housewares; its staple product, the sundress, wholesales from $35 to $50.

So far, bookings for spring are even to last year, he said, and indications of business being written look positive.

“Last year, we were hurting, and our business went down a little bit,” Cornell said. “All of last year was soft in both wholesale and retail. But we’re seeing things pick up immediately in retail, and our bookings are solid for next year.”

Jack Polizzi, president of Great Barrington, Mass.-based Tasha Polizzi, said even though market week didn’t seem nearly as well attended as usual, he is seeing signs that business is picking up.

“We have to remain optimistic, and we feel specialty products will continue to do well,” he said. “We’re encouraged by the orders we’ve written.”

On the expansion front, the company also recently opened a showroom in Denver and in Atlanta with the goal of building business in those regions.

“We’re taking the posture of not being intimidated or frightened by what we read in the newspapers,” he said, “but to be conscious of the fact that it’s a difficult market and the fact that everyone in the company has to be as efficient as they need to be. It’s just a matter of good, basic business.”

Designer Sigrid Olsen said it’s business as usual at her Wakefield, Mass.-based eponymous line. “We’ve continued to focus on the line and do our best and not try to be all things to all people,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we’ve changed our pricing structure, but we’re just trying to help out the specialty stores more so, in the end, it helps us.” Olsen said the company has increased its suggested retail prices by $1 to $2 to allow specialty stores greater freedom to adjust prices.

“We really haven’t tried to do anything extraordinary,” she said. “But I continue to try and keep a high profile doing personal appearances. We do see an uptick in business once we have a store appearance.”

Olsen said she predicts business will increase this year by 25 percent over last year. “Most people are happy to just maintain their business, and I know we’ll be able to do that,” she said.

Stephen Corvi, chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Casadei, avoided being too gung-ho about 2002’s economic outlook and said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the year’s forecast.

“Our customer base seems to be on good footing. Business is increasing, but it’s never fast enough for any of us, but it’s at a reasonable rate,” said Corvi.

Corvi said the 10-year-old firm recently made some major infrastructural changes, including moving its headquarters to a more spacious building in November and hiring a team of people to do its own cutting. “It’s all to control the quality of what we’re doing and to control our inventory better,” he said.

Still, Corvi acknowledged that business is tough — and only those doing something unusual can succeed.

“You have to be a little different. Our customer is very feminine, so we’re focusing on things that are different, feminine and pretty,” he said.

Berkley Cashmere president Lucy Braha couldn’t agree more. She said her basic cashmere sweaters, as well as one-of-a-kind items, have performed consistently well, despite the tough times.

“So far — knock on wood — business has been good, so we’re expecting a very good year,” she said. “We’ve got a new product, a new denim line, and men’s cashmere sweaters are launching.”

In preparation for that, Braha said the seven-year-old New York firm buys a significant amount of its own inventory, so it is prepared for reorders. Her goal for the year is to double in volume, but she said the company would be happy to maintain its current business. To meet that goal, the firm has added sales representatives in Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Planning conservatively is the game plan at Harve Benard, said president Bernard Holtzman.

“For spring, we planned very conservatively — almost too conservatively,” said Holtzman, of the 35-year-old firm. “Obviously, a lot of other people thought the same way. There will not be tons of goods [left over] in the market as there were last fall. In fact, desirable goods are going quite quickly.”

Holtzman said he’s anticipating business to be flat this year.

“I prefer to have a better sell-through than not have goods being given away,” he said. “If business is flat, I’ll be a happy camper.”

Meanwhile, Morris Elyaszadeh, owner of New York-based Lily & Taylor, said he is optimistic business will pick up this year.

“Usually, after a slow season, there comes a bang,” he said. “We are more optimistic than last year because we had a good spring. But because of Sept. 11 and the cutbacks, we think people will want to go out there and start buying more clothing and purchasing things.”

Elyaszadeh said the firm is spending more money on advertising for upcoming seasons and has increased catalog print by about 50 percent. The firm will also start attending more markets, starting with Dallas, Chicago and perhaps Atlanta, in attempts to grow business.

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