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Cautious and Uncertain: The Outlook at a Boutique

February 7, 1989

Undated (AP) _ EDITORS NOTE - Before Christmas, the Associated Press looked at how two stores were handling the holiday rush, in side-by-side stories from New York and Grand Rapids, Mich. The AP went back to those same stores after the selling season to get their outlook for 1989.

--- By JOYCE M. ROSENBERG AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - A customer at Osidi, a small Manhattan boutique, held a mini-debate with herself: Should she spend $35 on a scarf or save the money for a different item of clothing?

Marcia Massa, the store’s owner, listened to the soliloquy. She’s heard a lot of that kind of second-guessing from customers lately.

″People are getting very discriminating in what they are buying,″ she said.

Customer caution has made it hard for Mrs. Massa to get a handle on how business will fare this year. But she knows this much: If customers are playing it safe, she had better do the same.

Osidi, a moderate-priced clothing store named after one of Mrs. Massa’s friends, is in Manhattan’s residential Gramercy Park section southeast of midtown. The boutique’s customers, for the most part, are working women who live in the largely middle-class neighborhood.

Mrs. Massa’s customers have grown increasingly uncertain about the economy over the last two years, and she’s watched her business change dramatically and unpredictably.

″1988 was a very bad year for 98 percent of the people I came in contact with,″ Mrs. Massa said shortly after New Year’s. She included herself in the majority.

The holiday spirit seemed to pass Osidi by. While the season had some bright spots, business never really took off, even in the final week before Christmas when many other retailers enjoyed a last-minute surge.

″It was not a good Christmas season,″ Mrs. Massa said. ″The whole attitude of people was just to get it over with.″

Yet, in the first days of 1989, the mood of her customers seemed to pick up and business improved.

Several new lines of red, black and navy sportswear just about blew out the door. One woman spent $200 one Saturday morning on several pieces, and returned that afternoon for more.

Customers snapped up a rack of hand-painted scarves that sold for $35 apiece. Mrs. Massa filled it with new stock that disappeared just as fast. Jewelry cases also had to be refilled.

″I have a good feeling about spring,″ she said in mid-January. ″I have the feeling that people are going to start opening up their pocketbooks soon.″

But two weeks later, a slow Saturday was a reminder of how fickle the retail business can be. Mrs. Massa shook her head as she counted the day’s receipts and talked again about the economy.

Her outlook appears to move in tandem with sales, yet Mrs. Massa’s underlying optimism seems to keep her going. Even when she sensed customers were feeling down during the holidays, she knew they’d buy again.

″You go through a cycle of emotional depression,″ she said. ″You withdraw for a while - and then you come out.″

Mrs. Massa’s understanding of her customers may be the secret of her success and Osidi’s ability to weather uncertainty. She gets to know the women who enter the store, talks with them, treats them like friends.

People walking into Osidi are met with a smile. Mrs. Massa asks regulars how last night’s party went or how work is going. One woman, who had promised to stop by several days earlier but didn’t, was greeted with a concerned ″Where were you?″

That kind of rapport keeps them coming back. ″They kept me in business this past year,″ Mrs. Massa said of her regulars, and it helps her gauge how confident shoppers feel and what merchandise they might buy.

Their caution has led Mrs. Massa to sell a different type of clothing than in the past.

She used to buy entire ensembles that would sell for several hundred dollars. These days, accessories and mix-and-match skirts, sweaters and slacks are her staples. Osidi offers fewer lines of clothing, priced lower than the merchandise of past years.

The shift also has led Mrs. Massa to have some merchandise made to order. She’s no stranger to that end of the apparel industry, having been a manufacturer before she opened her store four years ago.

″It’s more economical to do it yourself,″ she said. By creating the specifications for her own merchandise, she is sure to get the kinds of fabrics and colors she knows will sell.

The watchword for this venture is caution - the same caution she’s applying to her store.

″We’ll see how it goes,″ she said.

End Adv for Monday Feb. 6

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