Trade Show Planner: Buyers Hopeful but Hesitant

LOS ANGELES — As footwear buyers prepare for the fall ’10 season, most are expecting a slightly improved business climate.

Still, in most cases, they plan to hold back on spending until the season nears.

Peter Hanig, owner of Chicago-based Hanig’s Footwear, said there is reason to be hopeful that the coming fall will bear fruit. “Next fall will be better than this past fall, and our fall was decent this past year,” he said. “The issue is how much better will it be. And that comes down to consumer confidence and the unemployment rate.”

Hanig said he is analyzing his roster of vendors and product categories and will likely expand his depth of casual boots, but will hold steady or possibly scale back on men’s dress product. “It would be tougher for us to add there,” he said. “Men’s dress shoes are a tough area.

“It’s more profitable to grow successful brands we already have,” Hanig added. “At the same time, we’re going to look for new product and new ideas that we think are appropriate for our style.”

One thing is certain, though — Hanig said he would wait as late as possible to buy. “If a particular category is hot, we’ll try to lock that in ahead of time,” he said. “But we are trying to wait more and more. You always want to leave money aside for reorders and changes. I certainly don’t want to do my entire buy up front.”

With most of his 112 stores located in Western states with high unemployment rates, Shiekh Ellahi, owner of Ontario, Calif.-based Shiekh Shoes, said he plans to spend about 10 percent less this season than last.

While he said he worries about the economy, Ellahi explained that his bigger concern is that vendors are playing it safe in their designs and are alienating consumers who want fresh product.

“I don’t feel great about [the economy], but the more depressing thing is that there is no great product,” he said. “The economy is challenging, but it’s going to make it worse when suppliers get so conservative. We still need exciting product.”

For fall, Ellahi said he intends to expand his brand roster to include lesser-known, edgier designs. “We’re looking for new brands and emerging brands to see how they can help us. Most of our main suppliers, especially for fall, look very conservative. They aren’t taking enough risks, especially for my consumers. So we need to look for something that looks great, takes risks and that we can sell for more than $100.”

At the 10-store, Los Angeles-based Brooks Shoes for Kids chain, regional manager and footwear buyer Matthew Brooks said he will scale his buy to match his customers, who continue to be thrifty. “We’re still not seeing a person walk in and buy four or five pairs at a time,” he said. “Now, it’s one at a time. Our strategy will be to continue to buy cautiously, focused on our core vendors.”

That list includes brands such as Stride Rite, Skechers, Kenneth Cole, Nike and Primigi. “These are vendors that we have a long-standing relationship with and that we can go back and reorder shoes with on an at-once basis.”

Flats will likely be a big part of his fall buy, but Brooks said he also is seeking to expand his fashion boot offering, which was exceptionally strong this past fall. “We did well with them, but we could have used an additional couple of patterns, so I’ll be looking to add to that,” he said.

In all, Brooks said he would pre-book about 75 percent of his budget and then use the remainder to chase in-season trends. “That’s been our game plan throughout the economic downturn,” he said. “Our plan is to react to winners faster.”

Tarek Hassan, co-owner of Boston-based The Tannery, said he would double the amount he spends for fall, thanks to a new store that opened on Nov. 21. “Business has been unbelievable,” he said. “We feel very strong going into fall. We’ve been having a great year and we’ll be up for next year. We’re looking to grow in the double digits this year.”

Hassan said most of his fall buy — roughly 70 percent — will be put toward boots, which proved to be critical this past fall. “There is a [fashion] direction and we’re going to be taking advantage of that,” he said. “Most of our buy will be done in boots. Going forward, [boot sales] are going to be even bigger than ever.” Among the labels he’ll stock up on are Hunter, Ugg and Frye, among others.

At Greenwich, Conn.-based Shoes ’N’ More, manager Ann Spallone said she, too, would be focusing on boots, as well as sexy heels, but she’s also looking for more office-appropriate shoes because many of her affluent customers, whose husbands were laid off from the financial industry, have rejoined the workforce. “A lot of women had to return to work, so we see a lot of them coming in looking for working pumps,” Spallone said. “At one time, we didn’t really see that.”

Trend-wise, Spallone said she sees designers moving toward natural hues, as well as shoes with a 1980s flair, such as Capezio jazz shoes. “I see everything that was in my closet in high school coming back,” she said. “Ballet flats are starting to fade out a little bit and you’re seeing more heels and jazz shoes and lace-up oxfords.”

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