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  • Jennifer Marks

Life in the fast lane

Passing through some of the New York showrooms for previews in advance of the fall market, a few topics cropped up repeatedly.

Yes, there was some grousing about auctions and the usual debate about which retailer is the most flagrant skinner of cats. But those topics have become so routine that few people get truly worked up by them anymore. As one supplier said, "They all screw you, so you've just gotta get over it and figure out how to do business."

Other topics are emerging as the subjects that will dominate the buyer/supplier agenda through the rest of the year. Each is linked in one way or another to the deadline for quota elimination. And each reflects the uncertainty executives in the industry are grappling with as they face the future.

Item 1: The ramifications of retailers going direct.

For more on that, please see Carole Sloan's column below.

Item 2: Forecasting fiascos.

Longer supply lines continue to require ever sharper planning. However, that process is crashing against what has become a primary commandment for retailers: Thou shalt not hold inventory. As a result, the future promises some hair-raising near misses on deliveries — and that's the upbeat scenario.

Nearly every supplier I spoke with complained about the state of forecasting. Each was clear on which retailer was the absolute worst at it. Almost always, that retailer was the supplier's largest account.

A number of retailers have moved this year to upgrade their forecasting and planning structures, and that's a good thing. Because when quotas drop 21 weeks from now and floodgates open, all bets are off.

Item 3: Supplier consolidation.

With a number of medium-sized suppliers searching for a white knight — and at least a few of them on the brink of pulling the plug if they don't — many people anticipate another wave of consolidation to sweep the industry, especially next year.

A lot of them are battening down the hatches and squirreling away their pennies in hopes of making it to the other side of a tumultuous 2005. But folks are also wondering what will happen if the industry finds itself with a shortage of domestic suppliers — and whether retailers recognize the possibility that it could happen.

Item 4: Oh yeah, what about product?

Those issues aside, there were some things to be pleased with on the product-development side of the business, where embracing youthfulness is emerging as a promising trend.

Although only a portion of suppliers opened their showrooms last week for previews, what was on hand was generally younger, fresher and more contemporary. Even Sferra Bros. was talking about appealing to younger consumers.

Geometrics popped up all over the place, and prints showed a resurgence. Color was strong nearly everywhere you looked.

With so many suppliers now sourcing from China, the Asian influence appears to be seeping deeper into U.S. designs, but in cooler, more nuanced interpretations.

That, too, is likely to become a bigger part of the future.

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