Thursday, May 15, 2008

WSJ: On Style: Early Markdowns Mean Springtime for Shoppers

See I said it was so, and now so has Ms. Binkley. So it's the truth. Go get 'em tigers!

On Style: Early Markdowns Mean Springtime for Shoppers
By Christina Binkley
15 May 2008
The Wall Street Journal

As fashion retailers vie for scarce business this spring, one clear winner is emerging: you, the consumer.
Markdowns of spring and summer clothes that would normally begin in June started in March this year -- an early thawing of prices brought on as luxury department stores tried to warm up the chilly response to fashion this season. High-end boutiques have felt compelled to follow suit, and discounters have been able to nab luxury goods months earlier than usual.
In many places, spring styles have been marked down before it's even warm enough to wear them. Finally, fashion's seasons -- which always feel somewhat premature -- have gotten so out of whack that they actually work in shoppers' favor!
The wave of discounting could ripple through seasons to come. Stores are likely to cut back on the trend-setting looks shown on runways in Milan, Paris and New York and instead focus on tamer clothes that are easier to sell. Indeed, Kelly Golden, co-owner of Neapolitan, a high-end boutique in Winnetka, Ill., near Chicago, says she plans to cut her purchases of runway looks to as little as 10% of her inventory, from around 20%, when she places orders this fall.
Right now, bargains abound on runway styles. If you had your eye on Prada's iconic wave-striped handbags as their wearers minced down Milan's runways last October, you can now pick one up for 20% off at Or how about one of those Cynthia Steffe georgette tunics from the designer's spring runways -- at 40% off?
Barneys New York notified customers of a one-week sale of up to 40% off starting May 20. Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's have had their own sales of warm-weather styles.
The early markdowns are largely a result of flagging consumer confidence. With home foreclosures, sky-high gas prices and financial-industry layoffs making headlines, many middle-class consumers sharply cut back their spending, particularly avoiding splurges on high-priced shoes, handbags and designer fashions. Stores, though, made their purchases of spring goods early last fall, when the luxury industry was still enjoying double-digit sales amid an orgy of interest in such frivolities as ostrich handbags and Louboutin platform sandals.
When racks of $750 sandals are marked down to $400 this fast, even the keenest shoppers learn patience. Consumers "are not going to want to pay full price for anything," predicts Ms. Golden of Neapolitan. Though she didn't have a spring sale last year until mid-June, she launched a 40%-off sale this week. Many of the clothes, from Tory Burch, Michael Kors and other designers, arrived in her store less than two weeks ago. Ms. Golden says her revenues are actually up 20% from a year ago. But when major department stores are discounting, she says, she has to match them or risk selling at even deeper markdowns in June.
If stores like hers cut back on the most dramatic fashions, as seems likely, it will further enlarge the disconnect between the runway looks the public sees -- styles that set the tone in fashion magazines -- and the plainer (but often excellent) "pre-collection" designs that consumers see more frequently in stores. Less dramatic pieces are less risky, and in a slow season, their very lack of distinctiveness means they can hang around longer on store racks without looking stale. The runways' relevance has been falling for years. Now, "resort," "pre-spring" and "pre-fall" collections account for 70% to 80% of the clothes and accessories in stores.
Weirdly -- considering that we haven't yet celebrated Memorial Day and schools won't let out for a good month -- new fall designs are hurrying spring and summer styles out the door. As designers race to be first into stores for the next season, tweed and dark wool looks from the likes of Carolina Herrera, Tuleh, Zac Posen, Pucci and Michael Kors are already on store floors -- suggesting that nothing about the timing of fashion is likely to get saner soon.
Some specialty manufacturers and retailers that stayed focused on the truly wealthy say they haven't felt the same bite as the mass purveyors. Pier Guerci, president and chief executive of Loro Piana U.S.A., says his cashmere company's sales so far this year are up by double-digit percentages over last year. He has been struggling, to little avail, to keep his company's cashmere and other luxury lifestyle wear from being swept up into department stores' sales. "We try to talk them into the fact that our customers are more than willing to pay full price," he says.
All the off-kilter fashion timing plays into the hands of Internet discount sites, which are already busy selling designers' current spring and summer collections. Melissa Payner, chief executive of, says this spring's retail slump has enabled Bluefly to sell current-season designer fashions at 40% or more off. Ms. Payner notes that Bluefly is seeing more inventory than usual this season.
While department stores launched spring and summer collections in January, Bluefly waited until March to buy and took the luxury of reading trends when they were already happening. That enabled the site, among other things, to order more blue than yellow after early predictions that yellow would be big failed to come true. And thank goodness, because yellow is a hard color to wear, no matter what the price.

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