Spring Retail Remains Dreary

NEW YORK — Spring might be in full swing, but retailers haven’t seen sales warm up.

Heading into Memorial Day weekend, department store buyers and independents said business has been even tougher than predicted this season — and promotions are already ramping up.

“[Spring selling] has not met anyone’s expectations. It has been more challenging than we expected,” said Debbie King, VP and DMM of women’s shoes at Bloomingdale’s, which was gearing up for its holiday sale. “But we have been maximizing opportunities and we have been very aggressive in reorders.”

King noted that styles from Tory Burch, Sam Edelman and some high-end designer looks are still selling at full price. “The flat sandals business is strongest. There are lots of sandals for less than $100,” she said. Looking ahead to fall, Bloomingdale’s is hoping to inject excitement by adding 17 new brands, King said, although she declined to name them.

Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing also reported success with flats this spring, citing strong sell-throughs with Tory Burch and Chanel, in particular. Regarding overall business, Downing said, “Our customer may not be buying as robustly as she did in the past, but what she is buying is fashion-forward, trendy and super-special shoes.”

Meanwhile, a number of department stores were hanging out the sale signs last week. At Nordstrom, the retailer kicked off its semiannual rack sale on Wednesday, with a select assortment of shoes discounted from 30 to 50 percent. The three-week event was widely publicized in advance with telephone calls to customers.

Barneys New York sent an e-mail blast to customers last Tuesday announcing a “secret sale” with several shoe styles, including Pierre Hardy and Fendi, marked down as much as 40 percent. In addition, prices on pre-resort Manolo Blahnik styles were reduced by 40 percent for one day, on May 19. The next price break is set for May 26.

And Saks Fifth Avenue, which was largely vilified last fall for breaking price earlier and deeper than its competitors, has begun discounting bridge lines including Stuart Weitzman, Kate Spade and Cole Haan by 30 percent. Select designer styles also are beginning to see price drops.

Though the promotions are still moderate compared with last season’s discounts, the widespread discounting among larger retailers has forced many independent retailers to follow suit. At women’s footwear boutique Posh on Main, in Bellevue, Wash., owner Angela Self was offering shoppers 40 percent off last week on select spring styles from Tory Burch, YSL, Lanvin and Giuseppe Zanotti.

Roger Brooks, owner of Brooks Shoes for Kids, which operates 11 locations across California, said a difficult spring has also driven him to heavily discount.

“This is painful,” said Brooks. “I expect the rest of the year to be tough, and it will be tough well into June 2010. There is no direction, no strong trend … and when you have a store like Barneys offering 40 percent of all day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and staying open an extra hour, that’s where people are going to go.”

To compete, Brooks has upped his own promotional efforts. “We’re promoting the store on a weekly basis. Even if we initially tell customers the sale is Friday, Saturday and Sunday, we’ll end up continuing it for another week,” he said.

At the Bella Dawn boutique in Union, N.J., owner Dawn Del Russo had to go on sale earlier than normal this spring. “With the in-store sales, we’ve done everything earlier and we’ve adjusted the percentages. Where we used to be at 10-to-15 percent off, we’ve done 20-to-25 percent off, and we’ve been doing a lot of gifts with purchase,” she said.

To help bring traffic into the store, Del Russo has been announcing sales through social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. (For more on retailers’ social networking initiatives, see page 19.) “It’s unbelievable how many people respond to those promotions, and customers will forward the messages to other people,” she said.

At high-end boutique Steven Dann in Great Neck, N.Y., owner Steven Dann said exclusive partnerships with key designers will allow him to stay at full price until his planned end-of-June sale.

“We’re trying to buy as different as possible, and designers are helping us with special colors and exclusives,” said Dann. “So even if a similar silhouette from the same brand is in a department store, if my product isn’t available anywhere else, I can still sell it for retail. The massive sales are unfortunate because it brings the value of the shoe down.”

Amy Tricoche, owner of Big & Elegant, a Tampa, Fla.-based footwear store specializing in large sizes and widths for women, said having a niche business has helped her store avoid steep spring discounts.

“Instead of buying two pairs, as a lot of women normally do, they’re buying one pair because times are tough. But when you have a niche, the women are so excited to find something that fits,” said Tricoche. Since the average price of her footwear is around $50 to $60, with boots peaking at $99, Tricoche said customers have not been inquiring about discounts. Casual spring styles, such as slip-ons and sandals in neutral colors, have been selling well, she added.

According to Tony Zelaya, owner of Zelaya Shoes in Bethesda, Md., independents may have to race to keep up with department store discounts, but they can create loyalty by reaching out to the customer and establishing a close relationship.

“The key is to become friends with customers,” Zelaya said. “You need to be a walking billboard for your company. I offer 10 percent off to everyone who is a Facebook friend or a Twitter follower of the store.”


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