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Christmas (in June)

It's 90 degrees and oppressively muggy. But on this steamy June day, a contingent of buyers from Beall's Department Stores Inc. is trying to muster up a holiday mood.

They're going from office to office screening Christmas TV spots to sign up co-sponsors for a $500,000 holiday ad campaign. They're picking the bulky holiday sweaters they hope women will want six months from now. They're turning thumbs down on thousands of wannabe fashion trends they don't think have a snowball's chance in subtropical Florida.

"Everyone thinks being a buyer is a glamorous job, but it's really a lot of hard work," said Sherry Roithmayr, who has bought clothing for Maas Brothers, Dillard's and now Beall's over a career spanning 21 years.

Representatives of all of the nation's department stores swarmed New York's Garment District last week to begin buying apparel for Christmas. Beall's allowed a reporter to tag along for a look at the frenetic vagaries of the ready-to-wear business. Those who think it's all elegant fashion shows and simply saying "I'll take that" are in for a rude surprise.

The buyers spent a week of 10-hour days _ working through lunch _ wandering from showroom to showroom where the fashion world unveils its wares one piece at a time. With the exception of a few fashion houses where clerks double as models on demand, nobody stages fashion shows _ much less those elaborate extravaganzas that get the ultra-pricey couture houses plenty of press hype.

Except for some garments that are nothing more than a drawing and some fabric swatches, everything makes its debut on hangers. And thanks to the nation's continued economic malaise and bargain-conscious shoppers, negotiations over prices are more brutal than ever _ and often continue until well after Christmas.

Already, the holiday mood on Seventh Avenue is ominous. The nation's economic ills have apparel makers fearing consumers will tighten their belts again this Christmas.

"It's been tough and we think it's going to continue that way," said Martin Brodie, an executive with Kellwood Cos. Sag Harbor line.

"It's been soft," said Bob Fowler, president of the company that makes Season Ticket sportswear. "We were hoping for something positive in President Clinton's first 100 days. Now we're into the second 100 days and no one in Washington seems to know what's going to happen.

"And if Washington decides to make these tax increases retroactive to Jan. 1, there isn't going to be a Christmas," said Steve Powell, a high ranking executive with Bernard Chaus Corp.

Beall's, which began planning for Christmas 1993 a week after Christmas 1992, is shooting for a modest 5.8 percent sales gain this time, but has the flexibility to adjust its appetite for buying Christmas goods as late as September.

Being a department store buyer means never being afraid to say no.

In a few days each buyer scans thousands of sample garments poised for mass production. But once the store buyers make their picks, about 75 percent of the samples displayed disappear. A typical buyer says "no" about nine times out of 10.

Roithmayr sizes up each offering in a split second.

"You have to consider everything at once," she said. "Fashion, quality, price and delivery."

Apparel company merchandisers have learned what each chain is looking for. They edit what they show to 30 or 40 pieces. Veteran merchandisers look for any inkling of interest, such as the standard industry genuflection _ a buyer reaching to feel the fabric _ before zooming into a sales pitch.

When buyers say something is "okay" that means "no."

"I think I got it," smiled Julie Tolle, an account executive of Byers of California after a session punctuated by more misses than hits. "Other than the color, fabric and price, you love our new line."

Buyers scrunch up their faces, roll their eyes and, when the show strays too far off their store's beaten path, make jokes to kill the pain quickly.

"Do you have this in black velvet with a picture of Elvis?" deadpanned Don Bell, Beall's merchandising vice president, after a particularly garish line of liquid gold blouses comes to a merciful end.

"Some of this stuff is so ugly that the only people buying it will be those with beautiful kids they want to tone down," said Allen Weinstein, executive vice president of the 51-store Bradenton-based chain.

A hard-talking, husky-voiced Texan by way of Rich's in Atlanta and Parisian in Alabama, Weinstein has guided Beall's for 12 years. He's carefully transformed a chain that once catered exclusively to retirees into an effective niche player that gives equal billing to updated looks favored by working women. He gives his buyers a lot of freedom, but sets limits that go beyond price.

"Our customers are middle America. Our prices are moderate. So we're doing everything we can to put value and fashion in everything we sell," said Weinstein.

That means plenty of brand names like Chaus, Liz Claiborne and Sag Harbor. And it eliminates most of the cheaper stuff destined for discounters and off-pricers as well as the higher-end goods headed for department stores with pricey designer boutiques.

Beall's definition of value puts almost all garments that have to be dry cleaned off limits.

"Our customer should not have to spend $5 every time she wears our clothes," said Weinstein.

It also means being on the lookout for ways to cut costs that make higher-priced goods less expensive.

"I'm looking for jackets, pants and tops women can wear to work that look like $100 but we can sell as a three-piece outfit for less," said Roithmayr.

The buyers visit companies that sell goods a cut above the Beall's price range to come up with private-label goods. Or they look at the more obscure labels that companies with classier names also make but don't advertise.

Roithmayr liked a black chiffon jacket with embroidered black roses that would have to retail at around $190. Too much for Beall's. But the manufacturer offered to hold the roses, getting the price down to $160. Now if Roithmayr can wrangle a few more dollars off the $78 wholesale price, she can get the goods in Beall's ballpark with a Beall's private label.

Beall's moved heavily into moderately priced career wear after Wal-Mart chased it out of a $10-million-a-year housewares business a few years ago. It's working. Sales in Roithmayr's $12-million-a-year department are up 35 percent through the spring.

To hedge their bets, buyers use the same gauge their bosses use to judge their performance: reams of computer printouts that track the sales of everything they buy, how quickly it sold and how much the store profited.

Nothing in the mainstream fashion business changes very quickly. So Beall's tests a new trend with a few items. If it sells, the chain buys more.

But as with all department stores, Beall's bread-and-butter profits come from tried-and-true goods that have been tweaked with new fabric, different collars, detailing or colors _ to make them look new.

"And as far as making any money on fashion-forward merchandise, it's like shooting $20 bills off the bow," said Roithmayr.

For instance, Madonna's contribution to the fashion industry _ unlined black lace in sleeves and dresses _ is all over the garment district. But a few items stocked at Beall's already didn't sell. So Beall's is stocking lace outer garments only if they are lined or use black lace as decoration.

The Beall's contingent found plenty of growing fashion trends to buy into.

The buyers loaded up on billowy pallazzo pants and bold print tops in jewel tones like gold, purple, magenta and teal. Dresses with flared hems are coming, along with more patterned stirrup pants. And in the causal pants business, Beall's hopes to capitalize on what many think will be the biggest thing since Dockers: wrinkle-resistant or wrinkle-free cotton pants for women.

It's a business rife with hyperbole. Buyers' misfires are described as "disasters." Goods that promise to sell well are described as "killer," "explosive" and capable of "monster" sales or "selling by the gazillion."

But once buyers have cast their lots, the hard part begins. Buying the goods takes longer than picking them. Price negotiations are almost endless.

Retailers today use all sorts of tactics to shift their costs back on apparel makers who in essence bankroll much of a store's inventory while it sits on the retail sales floor.

Time is money in retailing. The less time goods spend sitting in the store, the more money the retailers make. So the timing of the delivery of goods affects the profits.

So retailers demand all manner of discounts. They want promotional allowances. They insist on chargebacks and markdown allowances for goods that do not sell. They try to get manufacturers to eat the cost of putting price tags on the goods at the factory.

Just how firm are the prices?

"We had two buyers from different departments just order the same goods from the same company," said Bell."One got a better price. The other got a better delivery date."

And if delivery dates are not met _ a frequent occurrence _ that triggers all sorts of renegotiation.

"This is a business where you do a $1-million deal on a handshake and everybody is out to take advantage of you," said Joe Rosenbach, president of Whooz Bloos, a 3-year-old jeans maker with $12-million in sales. "I've even got a department store demanding credit for goods that were never even shipped to them!"