Local Apparel Retailers Tell Us How To Keep Profit In Style

Westchester retailers use a personal touch to attract and keep customers, while fighting off online competitors.

The deadliest duo in retailing is low margins and fickle tastes, a combo that pretty much sums up the apparel business. Add growing competition from online merchants, and you can readily see why Westchester clothiers face a constant scramble for strategies to succeed.

“My customers, because they’re savvy, will also shop stores in Manhattan, but my biggest competitor is the Internet,” explains Adam Zuckerman, owner of Z Life Denim Lounge, a trendy shop in the Rye Ridge Plaza that caters to denim-obsessed 30- and 40-somethings. “Delivery in a day, free shipping; it’s all tough. But then, what’s easy these days?”

Certainly not the local retail-apparel business. Net-profit margins in the industry run under 7 percent, which doesn’t leave much room for error. But there is plenty of opportunity for error, since fashion retailers face significant fixed costs and essentially reinvent their merchandise mix every season, ordering goods they hope will sell as much as a year in advance. Success requires an interesting ability to read minds and predict the future.

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“It’s not about guessing,” insists Lori Land, co-owner of Churchills of Mount Kisco, a designer clothing and accessories boutique. “Because I’m on the selling floor every day and know my customers on a first-name basis, I know the colors and palettes they love; I know what’s been selling. I’m not going to buy a bunch of green sweaters even though they’re on the fashion forecast. My clients hate green! So I’m going to buy gray and brown and purple.”

With so much competition, it’s essential to differentiate your store, according to Land. “We shop all over the world for different designers because we don’t want the humdrum designers that are in every department store. That way, we have a niche product that entices everyone.”

Staying on Trend

Today’s retailer has to keep up with trends in the industry, since they help point the way to what will sell and what won’t. “I have always been an avid reader of various fashion magazines, and I always leave events such as New York Fashion Week inspired by what new trends and pieces I can offer my customers,” says Lynn Puro, owner of March Boutique, a Briarcliff Manor shop that she describes as a bit of SoHo in Westchester. “This allows me to continuously offer my customers their favorite classics with a fashionable twist that keeps them up-to-date while staying true to their style.”

Zuckerman, who sells both men’s and women’s fashions, says men’s styles don’t change as rapidly. “For women, though, there are cropped jeans and skinny jeans and boyfriend jeans and flare jeans, and you never know what will be next. But when you live and breathe it all day, you realize what will catch on.” 

Local retailers need to be cautious about embracing trends, however, since Westchester shoppers aren’t always the first to grab the cutting edge. “Our customer is fashionable but not all that fashion-forward,” explains Dawn Pasacreta, co-owner of LOLA New York, a mid-priced fashion boutique in White Plains. “We follow the fashion magazines, but sometimes they’re over the top. Pleather is a good example. Last year, it was big, so we bought some pleather pants for Christmas. They took awhile to sell. This year, we bought pleather in the fall, and it was gone in a week.”

Moving the merchandise quickly is crucial for apparel retailers’ success. Patty Palmieri, owner of LV2BFIT, a leisurewear store in Rye Brook, says, “I don’t want to be a museum. I need turnover. There are vendors I don’t do business with anymore because their merchandise doesn’t move. I know what my bread-and-butter is, so I’ve got to be a better buyer.”

Pricing is also important in retail apparel, although perhaps not as much as in other retail categories. “Customers are not going to buy something they don’t like, no matter how cheap it is,” Pasacreta says. But price does matter: “A $75 handbag sells like crazy, but a $300 one takes a little longer to sell,” she notes.

The type of customer a store attracts also impacts its pricing philosophy. The luxury segment, for instance, has been somewhat isolated from the ups and downs that other retail apparel categories have faced. “Luxury customers are always shopping,” says Land. “They always have events; they always go on vacation. The people who live that lifestyle need to look the part, so we don’t suffer as much as mainstream stores  [when the economy falters]. For our customers,” Land adds, “if it’s something they love and just have to have, it goes straight to the counter. They don’t even look at the price.” 

That feeling is far from universal, though, and Land says retailers have to be careful not to turn away business from other market segments. “We stopped using the term ‘high end’ [to describe ourselves] because it alienated people,” she says, adding that some customers are intimidated by the store itself. “They think they’re going to spend a thousand dollars if they walk in. That’s just not the case. We do carry high-priced designers, but we also have moderate price points that welcome any customer.”

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Buying the right merchandise mix (another key success factor) depends heavily on knowing your customer—which, according to every retailer we spoke with, is key to the business model. “Clothing is personal; you want it to fit your body in the most complimentary way,” points out Tal Bitton, spokesperson for Princess by Tali, his wife’s eponymous boutique in the Jefferson Valley Mall in Yorktown Heights. “My wife knows her customers by name and knows their stories. From years of experience, she can tell them when something looks good and fits them well—or not. Online, you don’t have a connection with the salesperson who cares about you.”

Staying abreast of industry trends helps local apparel shops like March Boutique in Briarcliff Manor compete against the big department stores.

Land also recognizes the importance of personal knowledge and service. “People have been shopping in malls and big stores for so long, where they don’t get the attention they need because the salesperson is so busy helping maybe 20 people,” she says. She contrasts that with the approach at Churchills, where, she says, “We know their families. We know what events are coming up in their lives. We’re dressing them for occasions. We’re dressing their kids and husbands, too.”

Zuckerman, like many retailers, keeps a database of notes about his customers. He also believes in making the store experience at Z Life Denim Lounge as enjoyable as possible as another way to keep business constant. “We’ve made shopping a family thing,” he says. “One person can shop women’s, while the other shops men’s, and the kids can sit in the lounge and watch TV. We also have an old-school candy section. You have to have something different to create an experience that makes the customer feel good about coming in.”

LOLA’s Pasacreta adds that the concept of shopping as entertainment is alive and well for Westchester women. “We try to create a relaxing environment that’s fun for our customers. It’s a break from their busy day. They have fun shopping with their girlfriends or their daughters,” she says, adding that the boutique carries clothing and accessories for women of all ages.

Land agrees that retailers must focus on their stores’ ambience as an important contributor to the overall shopping experience. Though Churchills is a small business, Land explains, “We put a lot of money into the aesthetics of the store, because we knew it would drive business. It makes people feel comfortable to be in a nice setting with beautiful merchandise, so they feel good about the experience.” 

The Internet Factor

Internet retailing isn’t going anywhere, obviously; it’s becoming ever more popular and pervasive as part of the apparel-shopping landscape. So what can local stores do to compete? Brick-and-mortar retailing has significant, lasting advantages, according to Puro. At stores like March, she says, “We always help our customers find exactly what they are looking for while offering several alternatives. Also, a brick-and-mortar retailer truly provides a level of freedom for customers to try something on, change their minds multiple times, and explore new looks they might shy away from online.”

“If you don’t know the brands, it’s very frustrating to shop online,” Pasacreta adds. Returns aren’t always easy, either. “If you go to the UPS center here, it’s totally obscene with the boxes going back. I think people are going to get tired of that,” she says.

An intimate, satisfying, entertaining shopping environment is only part of successful apparel retailing, however. You still have to get the customers into the store to experience it. And that’s one of the ways in which the retail-apparel business has changed the most. 

“In the last 10 years, the emphasis on social-media outlets such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest has enhanced our ability to connect with our customers in the best way possible,” Puro says. “Ten years ago, customers had to rely solely on driving by the store or visiting our website to be aware of new arrivals, store parties, or holiday promotions. Now, through social-media posts, customers have immediate access to store news, events, and new merchandise within minutes.”

Princess by Tali’s Bitton points out that social media adds another merchandising dimension for retailers. “We’ve seen customers come to the store, buy a dress, then post it online. Within two seconds, their friends are commenting on it,” he says.

Land uses a mix of digital and analog communications to keep it personal with Churchills’ customers. “We don’t just send blanket emails,” she says. “We text a customer and say something like: ‘We have that red dress you were looking for six months ago.’” What’s more, she adds, “We still send personal, hand-written cards to say ‘Thank you.’”

Fashion retailing is a peculiar business. Customers generally shop to achieve a personal “look,” yet most want what’s in style — which, by definition, is the look the majority is wearing.

“You have to have your finger on the pulse,” Zuckerman says. “Being in the store and hearing everything the customer says gives you a feel for what they want.” 

Dave Donelson—who, like Gilda Radner, bases his fashion taste “on what doesn’t itch”—is a frequent 914INC. contributor.

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