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DALLAS — The consumer’s need for instant fashion gratification has retailers looking closer at trends, delivery cycles and how the goods on the selling floor meet lifestyle needs.

This story first appeared in the January 28, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Stores are angling to please a divergent fashion crowd that includes price-conscious moderate and better shoppers who want to purchase trendy apparel and wear it now, and designer shoppers who stock up early lest they miss out on a hot look that might sell out and not be replicated — even though they might not wear it for several months.

The fashion dichotomy encompasses fast-turn trend emporiums such as H&M and Zara, midtier better chains including J. Crew and designer specialty chains such as Neiman Marcus and Henri Bendel.

Launching collections or trend items within season, instead of sending advance deliveries that often languish in stores for weeks or months until closer to need or dramatically marked down, can help contain costs, avoid markdowns and keep inventories fresh and lean.

For stores that cater to a wide economic range of shoppers, the challenge becomes even more delicate as they deal with resultant delivery, inventory and markdown implications of advance or in-season merchandising.

“At J. Crew, customers are totally responding to buy-now, wear-now merchandising,” said Jeff Pfeifle, president of the 155-unit better specialty chain that merges classic styles with subtle trend references. “The customer likes to see newness and wants to wear it now. We see buy now, wear now getting stronger and stronger. It’s an important part of the way we do business and we’ve been in tune with it for some time now. Getting the right goods to the right stores at the right time is one of the most important pieces of the retail puzzle right now.

“Rather than having these large seasonal deliveries arriving a few times a year, we continually freshen our assortments with capsule deliveries that are in tune with the season, weather and needs of our shoppers. It gives pop to the sales floor and inspires purchases.”

In December, upscale specialty chain Neiman Marcus said it also was integrating in-season deliveries into the mix for women who want something off the rack. The chain worked with St. John Knits to launch an exclusive holiday and resort collection that proved a big hit.

“It’s buy now and wear now, and that’s an exciting step forward,” said Karen Katz, chief executive officer at Neiman Marcus. “Receiving apparel closer to season is a growing trend at retail. At Neiman’s, we’re always looking for new and innovative ways to bring excitement to our customers. We’re looking at events like the one for St. John and think, ‘How we can take it to the next level?’”

At Henri Bendel in New York, when to launch a fashion collection is determined by category and item, said Scott Tepper, fashion director.

“The success of buy now, wear now depends on the fashion item or category,” Tepper said. “We sell some collections very early. But buy now, wear now is a valid approach for some seasons and categories, especially resort. We did extremely well in December and in January with the resort collections from Missoni and Michael Kors, which were launched within season.”

Bendel’s also has noticed that more women are buying from preseason deliveries with a dual mind-set.

“We get early fall deliveries in June,” explained Tepper. “But our customers buy it early and wear it early as items [alone] or in layers as the weather changes. She may buy an early fall item, such as a lightweight top, in June, pair it with denim jeans and a summer shoe and wear it to the Hamptons. Lightweight fabrics are helping make buy now, wear now a much more important way to merchandise.”

Kelli Schulz, owner of better specialty shop K. Renee in Des Moines, Iowa, said, “Buy now and wear now is happening in most of our store now. It started a while back as apparel prices rose and women began to look for ways to get the most mileage out of their clothing. They don’t want to spend a lot of money and then wait to wear something.

“Lighter-weight garments that can be layered depending on the weather are becoming much more important. Vendors are understanding this and are making a concerted effort to appeal to the seasonless way of dressing. Sportswear labels such as Lafayette 148 and Liliu understand the concept and constantly deliver small capsule groups.”

Dallas-based Avant, a moderate-to-bridge store, merchandises close to season and then reorders hit styles, said Donna Chalker, co-owner.

“Buy now, wear now is basically all that we do,” Chalker said. “Timing the deliveries is one of the biggest challenges right now. More than ever, women want to buy a hot look and wear it that night or the next weekend. They reward themselves with fashion and wouldn’t dream of waiting to wear it. It’s the instant-gratification mentality. Plus, money and the economy is too much of an issue now to buy something and not get to wear it.

“Trunk shows used to be really important, but now they’re definitely on the wane. Vendors are really getting in step with the in-season approach to deliveries. Among our bestsellers are Sharagano, Save the Queen, Sue Wong and Mandalay.”

Stanley Korshak, a better-to-designer store in Dallas, said younger women and contemporary shoppers buy a style and wear it right away, while women who buy designer apparel are more likely to buy in advance, according to Rose Clark, general merchandise manager.

“The fashion customer wants to shop early because she likes to travel and can tailor an item to her environment, whether hot or cold,” Clark said. “With more inexpensive categories, such as denim or better and bridge sportswear, you get the customer who wants buy now, wear now. It can also be an age issue. At our store, the mom shops from advance deliveries and the daughter wants it now.”