Byline: GEORGIA LEE
ATLANTA -- At regional apparel marts nationwide, it's more than ever before a buyers' market, as these giant facilities zero in on the individualized needs of retailers, large and small.
Having positioned themselves as attractive alternatives to the expense and hassle of shopping in New York, these markets experienced rapid growth throughout the Eighties.
Recently, economic recession and the decline in the number of specialty stores -- the regional marts' bread-and-butter customer -- have brought several years of flat attendance.
Today, apparel marts are trying to maintain existing buyers with beefed-up incentive programs and niche marketing, while luring new business through international and out-of-territory programs. Department stores, catalogs and large chains are becoming increasingly important targets.
Faced also with a decline in tenants, marts are consolidating space, joining forces with other industries or offering more flexible leasing options. Between-market shows and specialized market events have become popular ways of giving tenants more bang for their buck.
Although attendance declined significantly during the early Nineties, regional marts are starting to see a slight leveling out.
"Things are on a more even keel now," said Peg Canter, general manager, Atlanta Apparel Mart. "We haven't had the rebound we expected, but neither have we lost ground in the past two years. The specialty store decline seems to have bottomed out."
The Atlanta mart doubled in size with seven floors in 1989, riding the crest of several years of growth. Today, the 15-floor building is only 52 percent leased. Beginning in October, apparel tenants on floors one through four of the mart will be consolidated into floors five through 14.
The bottom floors will be home to the International Sports Plaza -- a new venture of The Portman Cos., the apparel mart's parent company -- aimed at creating a trade center for the sporting goods industry. The consolidation should be completed by January 1995.
To lure new tenants as well as buyers, the mart has created the Premiere program, which offers collective areas designed to spotlight and attract specific categories. The Premiere area offers manufacturers small, 200-square-foot spaces as well as fixtures and signage. To date, two existing Premiere areas highlight bridge and contemporary clothing, and the concept will be extended to swimwear and lingerie within the next few years.
"Many of the small independent companies we want to attract don't need big space," said Canter. "This gives them an opportunity to test their lines before going into a bigger showroom or signing with a rep."
For the first time, Atlanta is targeting Latin American buyers through recent field marketing trips. Beginning in August, the mart will bring in Fashion Consul Inc., a Miami-based buying office, to provide consulting, sourcing, consolidation and credit approval for targeted Latin American buyers.
The mart has focused on the growing category of social occasion by designating the August market as Atlanta's Celebration Show. It will feature the social occasion category as a centerpiece for the overall women's and children's resort and early spring market. In October, bridal will receive a similar focus.
Similarly, the Los Angeles-based California Mart is emphasizing successful categories with new or expanded shows.
"Just like retailers have done, we've gotten into niche marketing, by casting our nets wider into new areas, such as intimate apparel or plus sizes during markets," said a mart spokesman.
The California Mart will combine the ISAM swimwear show with a juniors and contemporary market, as well as a new show, called Big Blu Jeanswear. The triple show will run Oct. 10-13.
Also new this year, the California Mart will launch California Collections Preview, a show featuring 70 California-based contemporary lines, which also include swimwear, jeans and juniors, to be held Oct. 8-9. The event, intended as an early look at California lines, will target an audience of key retailers as well as national press.
"Our strength is that we are not just a mart, but a manufacturing center," said the spokesman. With flat to slightly increased attendance over the past year, California Mart has beefed up buyer incentive programs. A new two-tiered program offers buyers a blue plastic card for speedy registration, free parking, discounts on hotels, restaurants and entertainment and airfare rebates. A gold card, which has a membership fee, rewards buyer loyalty with the same incentives, plus higher airfare rebates, use of a buyers' club lounge and free business services.
"With buyers making shorter trips, customer service that helps buyers have productive, cost-efficient visits has become key," said the spokesman.
With many showrooms used primarily only five times a year during markets, regional marts are searching for ways to make more consistent use of space. In California Mart's Market Tuesday program, showrooms feature promotions and seminars, and buyers get a $50 cash rebate after attending a set number of days. Tuesday attendance has increased 70 percent since the program began two years ago.
The Chicago Apparel Center has added new markets on Mondays and Tuesdays five times a year between major markets.
"Stores have told us they want to buy later, so this gives them an opportunity to fill in," said Susan McCullough, vice president, marketing.
As the number of specialty stores has declined, the Chicago mart has created a buyer outreach program targeting department stores such as Sears, J.C. Penney and Dayton Hudson, as well as large specialty retailers such as Mark Shale.
"We've customized programs for these stores, from making appointments to prospecting new lines," said McCullough.
The mart has also initiated micro-marketing programs, which bring in product targeted to specific groups, such as black retailers in urban locations.
The seven-floor Chicago building is 80 percent leased, according to McCullough, but management is now offering more flexible leasing options, such as shared showroom space, shorter terms, smaller spaces and market-time-only space.
Chicago's strongest niche has been bridal, which has grown to an entire floor consisting of 60 permanent manufacturers, including a designer pavilion that contains 25 upper-end resources.
The mart is developing similar areas in contemporary apparel and offering tenants shared space and smaller showrooms.
The Fashion Center in San Francisco is combining niche marketing with off-market dates in its Market Mondays program.
Each Monday when there is no market or holiday, the mart is open for business, emphasizing a specific category or theme.
Since the program began last year with children's wear, categories have been extended to eight areas, including misses', special occasion and ethnic wear -- apparel of Mexican and Latin American-inspired designs.
"We're trying to offer something for every buyer within a 250-mile radius by building specific categories and creating value," said Gerald Sorenson, general manager.
Sorenson added that while the mart's strength still lies in Northern California, recent field marketing efforts in the past year have extended into the Pacific Northwest. The center is also trying to attract more New York resources with a 4,000-square-foot Pavilion area, which offers small spaces and one-year leases.
Approximately 25 lines are expected to participate in the new program, which will be initiated at the October market.
To combat attendance decreases of between 2 to 5 percent over the past five years, the International Apparel Mart in Dallas has targeted major stores, as well as out-of-territory and international business. Out-of-territory buyer attendance grew from 20 percent in 1990 to 28 percent in 1993. Mexico represents 5 percent of buyers, a figure that increases each market, according to Bill Winsor, president and chief executive officer of the Dallas Market Center, of which the apparel mart is a part.
In March, the mart named Robert Burford director of international development. Burford now heads a permanent office in Mexico City. In May, the mart also named Michael Mendoza as senior manager of international retail development.
Mendoza, based in Dallas, will coordinate international efforts with Burford,aimed at not only Mexico, but South and Central America. The Dallas mart offers twice weekly Spanish lessons for tenants, and a bilingual hospitality suite for Spanish-speaking retailers.
Dallas has established programs with major retailers, including Dillard Department Stores and Neiman Marcus, that allow buyers to shop 200 days a year between markets. Winsor said the program would extend to other major retailers this year.
Rather than isolating niche markets, Dallas has relied on a mega-mart concept, which combines women's, men's and children's and various specialized categories in October, and has tried to develop crossover business with the gift market.
"Buyers today often have more responsibility for buying multiple categories," said Winsor. "It's to our advantage to have a broad and deep assortment in a wide range of areas."
Most management agrees that business, while improving, may never reach the levels of the Eighties again. However, most are optimistic the necessary adjustments can be made for regional markets to survive and thrive.
"With New York trips so expensive, they remain cost-efficient alternatives," said Chicago's Susan McCullough. "Regional marts are as viable, if not more so, than they've ever been."