For fashion retailers, new era of cozy dressing is uncomfortable

Boutique shopping is picking back up as women seek to freshen fall wardrobes, but with trade shows canceled and supply chains disrupted, running a fashion business is tough

This article was published in The Charlotte Ledger e-newsletter on September 23, 2020. To receive the latest local business-y news and trends straight to your inbox, sign up for free here.

Women’s clothing boutiques adapt to new way of dressing while facing challenges stocking their shelves; ‘all of the galas have been canceled’

It’s been a rollercoaster few months for Mary Titgen, owner of the Scout & Molly’s Boutique franchise in Waverly. She and other women’s apparel retailers are trying to make up for months of sales lost due to Covid, while facing challenges in both buying inventory and managing supply chain woes.

by Cristina Bolling

Mary Titgen knew there wouldn’t be a stampede of shoppers waiting in May when she flung open the doors of the Scout & Molly’s women’s boutique in Waverly after eight weeks of being closed due to Covid, and she was right.

“I came in with very low expectations. I was kind of like, ‘can we do $10,000 (in sales in the entire month)?’ May, June and July were about the same,” Titgen said.

But then, the real whammy: August, which always brings a huge boost to the 3-year-old franchise store with women from nearby Longview and Providence Country Clubs stopping in to shop once their kids are back in school, was a total bust because of online learning and canceled country club events. The shoppers they did get seemed to be in a funk.

“There were days in August when we were like, ‘No, this is not happening,’” Titgen said. “You could just feel it. The moms who came in were just, ‘ugh.’ They would come in and look, and they would walk out the door again.”

September is looking up for Titgen. She says she saw more sales in the first two weeks of September than she did in all of August, but big challenges remain.

Beleaguered industry: This is a critical time for local women’s fashion retailers, many of whom are still trying to recover from months of being closed and are having to adjust their offerings to appeal to women who are trading their blazers and heels for sweatshirts and sneakers and are shopping far less.

Stocking their stores is now harder than ever, because big fashion markets in New York and Las Vegas have been canceled and many store owners don’t feel comfortable heading to large regional markets like Atlanta, where they see samples and place orders.

There’s also a supply chain issue, which means store owners can’t do second orders of items that sell well because manufacturers aren’t making extras. So not only do they need to be on the mark predicting what women want to buy, but they need to forecast exactly how much they’ll be able to sell.

The apparel market has been one of the hardest hit retail industries, with year-over-year dollar losses nearing 45% in the three months ending May 2020, according to NPD market research group.  

Apparel retailers are abundant on the list of companies that have declared bankruptcy during the pandemic: J. CrewLord & TaylorNeiman Marcus and J.C. Penney, to name a few.

But Juliana Guglielmi, an assistant professor of fashion merchandising and management at Jefferson (Philadelphia University + ThomasJefferson University) in Philadelphia, said she predicts a lift in apparel spending through the end of 2020.

“If one thing makes people feel better it’s spending on gifts for loved ones,” she said. “We might see a generous holiday season.”

Goodbye party dresses, hello joggers: What this holiday season won’t bring, however, is the need for holiday party apparel, and for many stores, that’s usually a big seller.

Paul Simon Women, a 25-year-old women’s boutique in SouthPark that caters to an upscale, professional clientele, had been beefing up its special occasion offerings for the last several years.

But now, having cozy cashmere sweaters, comfortable knit pants and plenty of colorful scarves the store is known for is more important than stocking racks of cocktail dresses, says owner Marcia Simon.

“All of the galas have been canceled,” she says.

Industry turns to pop-up market: Simon was among dozens of other women’s clothing store owners from across the Southeast who visited a pop-up trade show earlier this week at Le Meridien Hotel in uptown to buy for upcoming seasons.

The show was the first of its kind for Charlotte, and it was born out of need: two of the biggest national fashion trade shows, the Coterie in New York and MAGIC in Las Vegas, were both canceled this year, and many store owners were hesitant to travel to markets in Atlanta or Dallas because of Covid.

So about 25 Atlanta and Charlotte-based women’s apparel showrooms decided to band together to take their products on the road, and are stopping through cities like Richmond, Charleston and Nashville so store owners can see their lines in person and order for spring 2021.

Kendrick Slaughter (seated, left), owner of KK Bloom Boutique on Selwyn Avenue in Myers Park, meets with a rep for the Z Supply brand of women’s clothing during a pop-up market Monday at Le Meridien Hotel.

Kendrick Slaughter, owner of KK Bloom Boutique in Myers Park, said she typically goes to six markets a year but hasn’t been to any yet in 2020.

On Monday, she said she was relieved to meet with reps from eight brands at the pop-up market in Le Meridien, so she could see clothing samples in-person and place orders for next spring’s season. She has four Zoom calls with reps scheduled for later this week, but she said she only orders clothes without laying hands on them if she knows the company and its quality well.

Slaughter said she’s focusing on casual clothes and cutting down on her dressy offerings for the coming season, but her trendy, youthful store bounced back well after being closed for almost two months.

“Besides wearing masks,” Slaughter said, “it’s like nothing ever happened.”

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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire; Reporting intern: David Griffith