A story in yesterday's Washington Business incorrectly identified John Henderson, general merchandise manager for ready-to-wear at Woodward & Lothrop, and the Newsmakers column incorrectly identified Amy Spivok, the store's divisional merchandise manager of men's sportswear. The Business Calendar gave the wrong telephone number for information about a teleconferencing symposium Wednesday. The correct number is 683-8500.
Consumers will soon feel the impact of the booming dollar abroad as lower-priced European imports begin washing ashore this spring -- but don't hold your breath waiting for big bargains.
Italian leather shoes, British cashmere sweaters and a few other items already are less expensive in a few area stores than they were a year ago. With other imports, however, consumers won't get a price break because the savings from the soaring dollar have been absorbed by retailers and distributors here or European manufacturers abroad.
"Retailers here don't go to all the trouble to buy overseas to pass on the reduced price to the consumer," said Monroe H. Greenstein, a retail analyst with Bear, Stearns & Co. in New York. "They go overseas to make money -- to maximize their profits. If they don't have to drop the prices of their imported goods, why should they?"
Many store owners blame rising freight and shipping costs for their inability to slash the retail prices of imports. "Our fabrics are still cheaper in London because we have to add the freight and duty costs," said Emily Cohen, manager of Liberty of London, a specialty fabric store in Georgetown. "Freight and shipping prices have been going up astronomically."
Some retailers said they are pumping the increased savings from cheaper imports back into their businesses rather than passing the savings on to the consumer. One furniture importer said he would rather improve his customer service program than mark down the price of imports for consumers.
"We're putting the money back into the company -- principally the training of our employes, our customer service, the support for our products and the improvement of our distribution centers," said Edward James, vice president of finance at Scandinavian Gallery Inc.
Conran's, a home-furnishings store that imports from Europe, has not significantly reduced the costs of its goods in the wake of a stronger dollar overseas.
Joseph Mistretta, Conran's furniture and lighting-fixtures buyer, said his freight rates have gone up $500 to $1,000 per container. Ironically, he cites the strength of the dollar as the cause of the higher freight costs.
"Before, when we bought goods from Europe, the empty container was loaded up with American products and sent back. But, now we're exporting less because of the strong dollar so the empty containers are just sitting here," Mistretta explained. "To get the containers back to Europe, the shipping companies are increasing our rates."
Some furnishings retailers aren't reducing their prices because Danish and Scandinavian furniture manufacturers, faced with increased labor costs, have been raising their prices to U.S. importers, said Gene Menz, manager of Scan Contemporary Furnishings in Georgetown.
Still, there are import bargains out there if shoppers look, retail analysts say.
At Georgetown Leather and Design, there has been more than a 10 percent drop in prices for shoes, boots, handbags and briefcases. "But, the real effect hasn't taken place in the retail business yet because we buy so far ahead," said Amy Munaker, a buyer who recently returned from in Milan to buy next fall's merchandise.
Georgetown Leather boots that have been selling for $159 will be reduced to $120; women's $59 leather pumps will be available for $49. Some of the cheaper goods will be in the store by May.
Lambswool sweaters from England and Italian angora sweaters are another category of goods that have been marked down in some stores. At Woodward and Lothrop, cashmere sweaters that sold for about $180 to $190 last year now retail for $165 to $170. Hand-crafted sweaters and fisherman knits that cost between $250 and $400 last year are selling for between $200 and $210.
"The significant difference is that we're getting more novelty sweaters -- luxury fibers, embroidery, hand-knit sweaters, paisley -- for basic prices," explained John Henderson, an apparel buyer at Woodies. "Before the strength of the dollar, novelty sweaters only applied to 5 percent of the market. Now, they're about 30 to 40 percent of the market."
At Liberty of London, fabric prices haven't dropped yet, but they will this spring, said Cohen. The prices of Liberty of London's two main cotton prints, Tana Lawn and Varuna Wool Challis, will be reduced 10 to 15 percent in the fall, she said. Gift items in the store already have been marked down.
Imported wines and the best French champagnes may seem more affordable, with the strong U.S. dollar pushing prices down by about $2 a bottle in Washington liquor stores.
"With the dollar skidding, the price drop, especially in the cheaper imported wines, is dramatic," said Robert Lewis Thompson, a local lawyer and wine columnist for The Washington Post. "The imported wines are now underpricing the cheapest California wines."
At MacArthur Liquors, a bottle of French Grand Cru Chablis that sold for $14 or $15 two years ago now sells for $8. "There are dramatic buys," said Bruce Bassin, the store's manager. "The more expensive wines are $2 to $5 cheaper than they were a year ago."
The best bargains in imported wines can be found at wine importstores, Bassin said, rather than at regular liquor stores.
Imported cheese prices have been dropping in the last months, according to the brie crowd. At Sutton Place Gourmet, a pound of French brie with herbs has dropped from $6.29 a pound to $4.59 a pound. Deluxe camembert, which cost $4.99 for about eight ounces six months ago, is now $2.79. And the price of Explorateur, a popular triple creme cheese, has decreased from $4.99 for eight ounces to $3.89.
"We're one happy pup about the French franc," said Peter Lovis, the cheese buyer for Sutton Place Gourmet.
Italian pasta is being sold at lower prices, according to Anthony Gioia, president of Gioia Macaroni Co. in Buffalo and chairman of the National Pasta Association. "The value came down 7 to 8 percent in 1984, compared to 1983, and the volume has increased 50 percent," Gioia said.
Other imported foods, however, have not been affected by the downward trend."We're not seeing a significant drop in prices," said Sutton Place spokesman John Rusnak. "Most Europeans prefer to be paid in dollars -- not their weaker currencies. So, the Europeans are taking advantage of us with the strength of the dollar."
The price of Wedgwood china, imported from England, hasn't gone up in four years, but it also has not decreased -- even with the weakened pound. James Fulks, vice president of marketing at Wedgwood Inc. in New York, attributed this partly to the large volume of Wedgwood in this country. "The U.S. distributor carries such a large inventory that a drop in the pound doesn't have an immediate effect here."
The effects of the strong dollar also have been offset by higher factory prices in England caused by increased labor and energy costs, Fulks said. In addition, uncertainty about the future exchange rate contributes to the company's hesitancy to drop prices with currency fluctuations, he added.
French glassware and earthenware prices have been affected by the megadollar abroad. At Williams-Sonoma in Mazza Gallerie, copper pots from France are marked down 20 percent.
At Kitchen Bazaar, an Italian pasta machine that retailed for $60 last year is selling for $29.99. The price of a French Le Creuset buffet casserole has been slashed from $80.00 to $40.00, German knives are marked down 30 percent and a Krups coffee grinder from Germany has been reduced from $24.00 to $14.99.
Another visible effect of the stronger dollar is the wider variety of European products, which once were too expensive to import, that are now showing up in the stores.
Shoe importers who abandoned European shoe markets and turned to Brazil and the Far East have been returning to Italy and Spain. Area liquor stores are buying a greater diversity of imported wines because of their cheaper prices. And furniture stores are buying more Italian Tizzio lamps and Italian glass, marble tables and leather couches.