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Jennifer Marks

All the marbles

Very soon we will see what impact the recession had on retail buying. With the first half of 2002 nearly wrapped, the make-or-break season that runs from Back-to-School to holiday will be here in the blink of an eye. As the first waves of product begin arriving in seven weeks or so, we'll see how aggressively (or conservatively) buyers were thinking during the downturn.

In the early months of the year, when all the order-writing was taking place, a lot of suppliers said they were seeing a lot of opportunity ahead for the third and fourth quarters. There's no such thing anymore as low-hanging fruit, they said, and the business to be had demanded a good deal of effort to land. But the fact that there actually was business to be had was regarded as a good sign.

By now, everyone should be on their game. Once it became clear in late 2000 that the party was just about over, retailers and suppliers began sharpening their operations. The results will make their debut in a meaningful way later this summer. Three areas in particular bear watching:

Rock-solid basics: A strong basics program is the foundation of any assortment, a lesson that was made abundantly clear in 2001 as basics masters such as Wal-Mart and Kohl's continued churning volume and as retailers that veered too sharply into edgy fashion looks found themselves floundering. Call it "What the Gap disaster taught the industry." If nothing else, the auction frenzy of late last year proved that merchants were intent on honing their basics — and their basics price points — to a fine sharp point. The question is whether product quality will have suffered in the process.

In-stock supremacy: The second great lesson of the millennial recession was that he who is out of stock is out of his mind. After paring inventories to the bone in the second half of last year, many retailers realized they'd left a lot of dollars on the table and inadvertently kissed some of their market share goodbye. Don't expect inventories to boomerang back completely. Instead, look to see which suppliers have done the best job of overhauling their systems to accommodate more rapid replenishment demands. They will be the big winners come January when all the receipts are counted.

Flashes of brilliance: The steady drumbeat of promotions, promotions, and more promotions only works for so long. At some point, you've got to put some exciting product on the floor to get shoppers excited. Suppliers across all price points stepped up to the plate during the fall and spring markets. And anecdotal evidence suggests that retailers were receptive to anything with a fresh approach. Just how receptive they were will become clear beginning in late July.

Sure, all three of those elements add up to good old-fashioned retail blocking and tackling. But sometimes it takes a big scare, like our mercifully mild recession, to get everyone's attention back on the fundamentals. A tremendous amount of hard work has gone into making the second half of 2002 a comeback season. I think we're going to see some great stuff rolling out. After all, this one counts for all the marbles.

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