Retailers Upbeat at Atlanta Show

ATLANTA — The mood at the Atlanta Shoe Market, held here Feb. 19-21, was noticeably improved from a year ago, but retailers and vendors said they’re not ready to break out the confetti yet.

“I’m cautiously optimistic [about 2010],” said Gary Weiner, president of Saxon Shoes in Richmond, Va. “At any moment, anyone could get shut down by weather or other external world affairs. The world is still fragile.”

He added, though, that spring sales at his store have opened up strong and early because of pent-up demand among consumers. “People have held back for three months or longer, and the weather has kept them away,” he said. “We’re already going back to the well on some popular styles.”

Among the fall looks on display at the show were an abundance of boots in all iterations, from ankle height to Western to over-the-knee.

Heritage brands, such as Lucchese Boot Co., based in El Paso, Texas, were benefitting from the fashion trend.

“Our product is niche at the upper end of the market, but college- and high school-age girls are attracted to it,” said Bob Smith, a sales rep. “We’re seeing lots of boutiques here that we’ve never been in before.”

Phil Perlis, fourth-generation owner of The Big Store in Tifton, Ga., said the unseasonably cold weather in the South this winter has helped boot sales; however, he warned that the industry’s tendency to “overcorrect” and offer too much of one thing could be a problem in the coming year. As a result, he was focused on finding new brands and styles for fall.

At Country Cobbler, in Valdosta, Ga., customers respond to newness.

“If it’s different, they want it,” said buyer and store manager Charlie Register. “Price is not necessarily a factor.”

He noted that outdoor brands have been performing well, especially Merrell. And buzz around Vibram’s Five Fingers product has been strong.

Several vendors were responding to the need for fresh merchandise. Jones Apparel Group Inc. showed the Gloria Vanderbilt line, which is being relaunched for fall, while in the designer suites, the Lauren Jones and La Fenice Venezia women’s labels made their Atlanta debuts.

John Casper, VP of specialty brands at Jones’ Nine West Footwear Corp., said Gloria Vanderbilt, which has moderate price points, should be able to compete in the women’s market.

“Dress [shoes] have become a price game. It’s a tighter business right now,” he said. “Before, you had people buying shoes for up to $800, but now it’s all about the opening price point.”

Overall, he observed that retailers were more optimistic. “[Storeowners] learned they could make money with less in stock. They’re managing their margins better, and things are starting to look up for the next year.”

The Atlanta Shoe Market, which increased its exhibitor space by 13 percent this season, will add another 25,000 square feet for its spring event, set for Aug. 13-15. Show organizer Laura Conwell-O’Brien, executive director of Southeastern Show Travelers Inc., noted that the popular cocktail party also would move to the nearby Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

“People like coming here,” she said. “They like the camaraderie of this show.”

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