Retailers: Fall Outlook Cloudy

NEW YORK — As buyers at last week’s FFANY trade show got their first glimpse of fall ’12 product, they were mixed on their merchandising strategies for the season ahead.

Some retailers are planning to take more risks with new brands, as well as boost spending, while others are more cautious amid concerns over the upcoming election year, the credit market and the European debt crisis.

Corey Vason, senior merchandiser for designer, salon and bridge footwear at Piperlime.com, said he was on the hunt for fresh looks for the season.

“We are adding some new brands [for fall],” he said. “We are looking for the latest trends. I’m seeing cap toes, fringe and lots of glitter.”’

Vason, who was placing an order at Pour La Victoire, declined to say which other brands he planned to buy, but listed Loeffler Randall, Rachel Zoe, Kate Spade, Stuart Weitzman and Vera Wang Lavender as standouts at the show.

Dan Gallagher, senior men’s buyer for Gwynn Oak, Md.-based Shoe City, said that while sales at the chain’s 29 stores have been strong, the retailer may have played it a little too safe last fall, something Gallagher hopes to correct moving forward.

“We were pretty close to the vest last fall, maybe more than we should have been,” he said. “[Looking to fall ’12] there is room for opportunity there.”

While he didn’t name an exact figure, Gallagher said his buy would certainly be up over last year, if for no other reason than to outfit the two new stores debuting in the coming year.

Anna Szerencsy, president of the specialty footwear site Widewidths.com, said she is optimistic about business going into fall ’12. “Our buying will be on par and probably up,” she said, adding that sales have risen double-digits from a year ago. “We have a niche market and the economy doesn’t affect us — or have as much of an impact. It’s an item [consumers] can’t really find [elsewhere].”

At Williamsburg, Va.-based Truman Curtis, owner Ann Tiernan said that while her spend will remain the same as last fall, she is overhauling the product assortment due, in part, to competition from discounters.

“We’re completely changing our buying strategy,” she said. “We’re cutting a lot of shoes. Everything we buy [now] has to be special. Since our store is near a lot of outlets, consumers are not going to pay a price for something that looks the same in an outlet. It has to be different.”

However, Tiernan said, consumers are even being unpredictable when it comes to price. For Black Friday, the store offered steep discounts of 33 percent off everything in the store, but that failed to generate sales.

Many retailers acknowledged a similar irregular pattern this fall.

Maurice Breton, president of 22 Comfort One stores and three Mephisto concept shops, based in Manassas, Va., said that even while sales are up double-digits this year, he is taking a guarded approach to next fall. Breton said he planned to spend less up front and fill in as needed.

“It’s an election year, so we know we need to be more cautious than in a typical year,” he said. “There is a heightened sense of uncertainty. And consumer confidence is a problem.”

A stagnant credit market, too, remains a concern for some.

For Peter Hanig, president of Hanig’s Footwear in Chicago, the reluctance of banks to provide loans to businesses that rely on revolving credit lines could be yet another hurdle. “Credit is one of the major issues for the financial system,” he said. However, he’s confident footwear will be one of the better-performing categories in fall ’12.

To better position himself, Hanig said he would buy deeper into his top-selling brands, including Thierry Rabotin, Mephisto and Ecco. “I want to make sure our core business is strong and well represented,” he said. “I want to have enough of this product on the walls.”

But Hanig said he did not plan to play it entirely safe for fall, regardless of the turmoil in the economy. “I want to try to find more unique [items]. I refuse to stop experimenting with product,” he said.

Avis Skinner, owner of Nantucket, Mass.-based Vis-à-Vis, said that while footwear has consistently outperformed apparel and other accessory categories, that could change going forward, largely due to aggressive discounting from online sellers and department stores.

“I don’t think footwear will outperform apparel because of all the online stores and department stores that give discounts and coupons,” she said. “The whole coupon business has really affected the shoe business.”

The European debt crisis loomed over the thoughts of some buyers.

For Zacky Joseph, owner of New York-based Zacky’s, the crisis was making his largely European customer base watch its wallets more closely. “I have a lot of European customers,” he said, noting a recent dip in store traffic. “We have to pay attention, watch what happens and react accordingly.”

Joseph said domestic economic woes were also impacting his business in downtown Manhattan, where other retailers have recently shuttered their doors. Joseph said it was driving down traffic for the retailers that remain. “A lot of independents are closing,” he said. “We need these stores for people to come to our area. The more stores, the more reason for customers to be there.”

But even as worries mount, Austin, Texas-based Karavel Shoes buyer Vivian Johnson warned buyers not to rely solely on fill-ins since wholesalers, too, have restructured their businesses and are stocking less product.

“You have to anticipate your needs and buy ahead of time because vendors may not have the inventory later on in the season when you need to reorder,” she said. “They’re tightening their belts and not stocking as much as they used to. A lot of vendors don’t have excess inventory [anymore].”

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