But Jones needs to be quick. Mr. Mendelson says he noticed earlier this summer the rising popularity of shrugs-minisweaters that cover only the shoulders and upper arms-and raced to get them into stores by November. Normally that process would take three times as long. The late decision means Jones has to fly the garments from Hong Kong instead of shipping them, a costly proposition but one necessary to stay on the cutting edge.

For retailers, the turmoil presents especially ticklish problems. Fashion styles used to flow from runways at a pace that allowed the 950-store Express chain to test products in key stores before putting them in broad circulation. Such market testing isnít as reliable as it used to be. Express says if it fully tested an item thatís popular today, such as a flounced miniskirt, it likely wouldnít be hot by the time it reached the shelves of most stores.


Expressís solution is to stick to a narrow assortment of styles in many variations. Its top-selling "editor pant," for example, comes in one fit and three lengths but some 100 variations in fabric and color. Thatís a risky proposition. With 50 to 60 variations on the sales floor at a time, Express is sometimes forced to close out slow-selling colors or fabrics. Inevitably, "markdowns are going to go up," says Paul Raffin, Expressís chief executive officer. "Itís more complex to forecast just what the demand is going to be," he says.

Department stores, which have long suffered from poor customer service, can no longer coast in such a retail environment. For example, stores are stocking up on tweed jackets for the fall, but shoppers, copying high-profile actresses such as Uma Thurman, are expected to want to wear them with cool brands of jeans or a funky brooch. Those items likely wonít be displayed nearby.

As a result, Seattleís Nordstrom Inc. has trained a new class of salespeople to help clients navigate through the tweed, just like a personal shopper. Retail stores are taking a similar tack: Banana Republic has installed "style experts" for women and "suiting experts" for men to do what cashiers canít: help befuddled customers pull together unusual outfits.

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