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Posted Date: 2/1/2003

The Consumer: 'Catch Her If You Can'

As legions of apparel brands and retailers descend on Las Vegas this month for the MAGIC show, the industry will once again roll the dice in the exciting game of fashion. What trends will retailers embrace and buy, and more importantly, which styles and lines will consumers respond to with favor at retail?

The answer to both questions lies in apparel innovation, which was a major theme of discussion at another event last month in New York - the National Retail Federation (NRF) annual convention and expo.

How can apparel businesses do a better job of connecting (profitably) with the consumer, particularly the female consumer? Here are just a few of the ideas that flowed forth at NRF:

"Listen" to the consumer by analyzing market trends and your own sell-through information, and respond quickly when the consumer says she wants more of a fashion direction, and when she has had enough. Denise Seegal, a long-time leader in women's fashion and now head of Sweetface Fashion Co., which produces Jennifer Lopez's brand of apparel, emphasized how important it is to "develop DNA for your brand" and stick to it.

Seek trend direction by tapping into how players within and outside of your immediate space are addressing the market. For instance, Charlotte Neuville, vice president of design for Lerner New York/New York & Co., says she frequented the Web sites of athletic wear leaders for inspiration on the casual comfort trend. Looking outside the apparel industry for ideas and talent for your business also is important, other NRF speakers emphasized.

Use historical point-of-sale (POS) data to help predict future consumer behavior based on past buying patterns. There are an increasing number of software solutions on the market designed to enable apparel brands and retailers to make the best use of this data for forecasting and planning. (Watch for Apparel's round-up of some of these tools and others in the April issue.) However, experts at NRF cautioned: Don't rely on sales data too much, as it is a look back and not forward. A strong database of accurate POS data can be most helpful in optimizing your markdown and pricing strategies.

Analyze the consumer's shopping experience. One of the most interesting solutions I heard about at NRF was from Brickstream, which offers customer relationship management (CRM) tools for tracking the consumer's brick-and-mortar shopping experience in much the same way that online retailers trace consumer buying patterns, explained Zoher Karu, director of product management. Brickstream software analyzes consumer movements recorded from cameras positioned throughout a store. The tool can help apparel firms see where consumers spend the most time, compared with where they spend the most money, among other interesting factors.

If you've implemented all of these concepts in your business in some form, you probably have a healthy level of obsession for understanding the consumer. If not, there's always room for taking your relationship with her to the next level. Do everything to catch her if you can!

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