Dance storeowners report that fashion items are often beating out basics, baby ballerina gear is a bust and supply chains have been disrupted. We asked four veteran retailers how they are managing their stock to adapt to pandemic shifts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sent a wave of changes across the dance industry, creating a guessing game for retailers who are working to continue to serve their local dancers.
Interruptions in the production of pointe shoes and other necessary dance supplies have led to supply-chain hold-ups, and abrupt schedule changes and enrollment dips at dance studios have had a huge impact on how dance stores do business.
Storeowners are asking themselves, What products must be stocked and how many? This fall, retailers saw fashion leotards outsell basics as dress codes became less of a priority during pandemic training sessions, whether at home or in the studio. Others are stuck with an abundance of baby ballerina gear as more parents are opting to keep their young dancers at home. Some customers are splurging on higher-priced styles or doubling up on the essentials, like pointe shoes and tights, to get them through the winter months.
Amid the second wave of the pandemic, retailers are once again rethinking their tried-and-true inventory-management methods to keep their businesses afloat. We asked four storeowners how their store planning has changed over the past year.
Mary-Lee Conte, owner
La Luna Dancewear, Southbury, CT
Heather Aldi, president/CEO
Metronome Dancewear, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA
Kristin Ruggieri, owner
Attitude Dance & Active Wear, Norwalk, CT
Renee Laverdiere, owner
Repertoire Dance Shop, Scarsdale, NY
Dance Business Weekly: Did you have surplus inventory when stores suddenly had to close and before you revved up your e-commerce or in-store pickup? How did you deal with it?
Conte: We had a surplus and very few clients. No one was buying dancewear because classes were mostly being held online and Zoom classes offered a more relaxed dress code. So, we did mark down all of our inventory.
Aldi: We saw a dramatic drop in pointe shoe subscriptions, which left a glut of specific shoe inventory. Likewise, the shoes we had ordered to fill our contracts with professional companies had come in but would no longer be going out. We do not intend to draw down that inventory. Most of the brands do not allow that. Additionally, with supply-chain interruptions, Metronome anticipates difficulty in sourcing future stock, so having inventory on hand is preferable to selling surplus at a discount.
Ruggieri: We had surplus stock, but I recall feeling very fortunate that our inventory is not necessarily seasonal. Whatever we had in stock in March, I knew we would be able to sell in September. We did run a gift-card sale, 15 percent off. We had a huge response the first week, and after that orders started trickling in for pickup or delivery.
Laverdiere: I had a lot of inventory come in right before I shut down in March. I had to close early because my store is in the epicenter—we’re roughly five miles from New Rochelle, NY. I didn’t even open those boxes for a few months. I used that time to build my website.
DBW: Were you able to cancel or renegotiate any back-to-school orders that you had placed before the shutdowns?
Conte: Our manufacturers did not allow us to cancel any orders and held us responsible for payment. However, all our dance manufacturers did offer extended payment terms. They were offering this to all clients, so there was no need to negotiate.
Aldi: Back-to-class orders that we had placed before the shutdown have still come in. Several vendors delayed release, so new fashions arrived months late, which was very helpful. We plan on drawing out the selling window for these leotards to cover future seasons as plans for fashion lines in 2021 will be scrapped barring a surge in demand. Basically, we plan to do more with less in the coming year. In an effort to never have legacy debt, we have always paid for inventory as it ships.
Ruggieri: As luck would have it, I had major orthopedic surgery right before back-to-school orders were due. I didn’t place any fall orders, and my procrastination really paid off! I’m trying to figure out how I can avoid placing them so far out in the future. It’s just too hard to anticipate what you’ll be selling that far in advance—studios always end up changing their dress codes well after the orders have been placed.
Laverdiere: I didn’t put my fall orders in because they were due in March, and I was shut down by then. I was fortunate to not get stuck with a lot of product. There was one box of fashion that got shipped to me right before I closed and I never opened the box, but I paid my invoice. When my rep found out that I paid, he called and asked me why. “You should have called and talked to me,” he said. “You could have gone on a payment plan. We’re here to help you.” It brought tears to my eyes. This manufacturer was really being generous, and it was so nice to see people extending kindness and working with retailers.
DBW: Did any of your vendors have any supply shortages because of products made overseas? How did you respond?
Conte: Pointe shoes that are being made in Europe have a 10- to 12-week wait. I notified all my clients who are using this product, and for the most part they are willing to wait. Most dancers still had pointe shoes, since there were no end-of-year performances.
Aldi: Supply-chain issues have plagued the dancewear industry for years even before COVID caused further interruptions. It has been an ongoing issue and has made it very difficult to serve our dancers’ needs in a timely manner. Several major pointe shoe manufacturers do not have sufficient stock on hand and order shoes made when a retailer puts in the order, causing 12-week deliveries. Our surplus of stock on hand has helped us serve both retail customers and other retailers seeking specific shoes for customers. Likewise, we have forged relationships with other retailers to source product when a manufacturer is out of stock. This symbiotic relationship is great for both the dancers and the reputations of retailers.
Ruggieri: I’ve had a terrible time getting certain pointe shoes, which is our biggest seller right now. It’s only a few brands, but it’s been extremely frustrating for us and for dancers. I’ve had to steer my customers toward manufacturers that are better equipped to get product to us.
DBW: What changes in customer needs led to different inventory purchasing for your store? Is there any old inventory that is no longer as popular or relevant?
Conte: I purchased masks. However, with big-box online retailers selling all kinds of masks, there wasn’t a high demand. Clients also purchased home barres online, therefore I did not carry these items. All my inventory still seems to be relevant. Clients are sticking with the basics.
Aldi: Home-studio inventory needs have helped sales, with foot stretchers, yoga wheels, balance boards, bands and other exercise equipment flying off the shelves. We have also seen a need for dancers to find classes beyond their studios that they can digitally connect with. We try to promote platforms as we discover them on social media. The more dancers get to dance, the more they need to buy dancewear! Flooring is often rough on shoes, so pointe shoe covers by Só Dança have been a popular add-on. With no Nutcracker or other performances on the horizon, we are seeing less need for tights, garment bags, dance bags and undergarments.
Ruggieri: We’ve sold almost 1,000 masks to date. It’s pretty shocking! I’ve put a lot of effort into sourcing fun, unique masks that generate excitement. Bloch and Ballet Rosa masks have also been big sellers. There are very few young children taking dance or gymnastics in our area, so I’ve all but stopped ordering for little ones. That really affected our numbers in September. We’ve been focusing on fashion apparel for preteens and up, as most schools have gotten pretty relaxed about their dress codes.
Laverdiere: We’ve found people don’t want basics; they want fashion. I think they were feeling so dreary and hopeless that a beautiful fashion leotard made them feel better about dancing at home. Bullet Pointe skirts and tutus have been big sellers—that made me smile.
DBW: Are customers looking for lower price points? How did this affect your purchasing?
Conte: Customers are looking for the best deals. I am buying less and discounting what I can.
Aldi: We have not noticed customers specifically seeking out lower-priced items. We are just seeing them purchase fewer than in previous years.
Ruggieri: We’re finding parents are more likely to splurge on higher-end apparel. Ballet Rosa has done very well this year, along with Nikolay, Elevé, AinslieWear and other comparable brands.
Laverdiere: I have fewer customers now, but they are buying more. It’s not unusual to have a $400 sale, and those are saving me. People are stocking up now because they are afraid of another shutdown.
DBW: With a dip in store revenue this past spring and through the summer, how did you manage cash flow when you needed to purchase fresh merchandise?
Conte: I sold online items for clearance prices and grew my pointe shoe business by scheduling private Zoom meetings.
Aldi: The dip in revenues has made it difficult to purchase fresh inventory, but it has not seemed to be a problem [since we have] excess inventory on hand. With so many employees forced to stay home with their children as schools have not resumed in-person learning yet, our payroll has contracted significantly. That has helped cash flow a bit, and customers have been very patient and understanding when needing to wait on our skeleton crew for service.
Ruggieri: I would not be open right now without my substantial SBA loan. I am hoping things go back to normal soon so I can try to pay it off early.
Libby Basile is a former editor of Dance Retailer News. She reports regularly on visual merchandising, retail strategy and store design.