ASA throws brushback pitch; vendors charge the mound

The American Softball Association (ASA) threw the team industry a fastball high and tight with its new mandate on softball bats earlier this summer and suppliers and retailers aren’t taking this brushback lightly. Together, they are digging in to either force a delay or change in the ruling.

Leading the charge to the mound is Worth. On July 10, shortly after ASA handed down the new regulations (scheduled to take effect January 1, 2004) it filed a lawsuit claiming that ASA did not give suppliers enough time to find the proper test equipment, much less reverse course to meet the new standards for fastpitch bats already in the pipeline.

“Because ASA made this decision before bat manufacturers had access to a lab certified with the new test system, we have been unable to fully determine the impact on Worth bat models both past and present,” Worth stated when it filed its lawsuit. “We are well into the production, sales and shipment of our 2004 line of bats without a solid understanding of design changes that may be necessary to meet the new standard. ASA’s action in this regard is extremely disruptive for players, retailers and bat manufacturers alike.”

Because of this, Worth has asked the courts to require ASA to act in keeping with its bat licensing contract and grant the required lead time and grandfathering time prescribed when changing standards.

Dealers and other manufacturers are just as unhappy as Worth about the announced rule changes.

“Any time a change is made without sufficient time for manufacturers, retailers and players to work through existing inventory, the industry will be impacted,” says Mike Zlaket, VP-baseball/softball for Easton Sports, Van Nuys, CA. “We have tried to provide as much clarity and visibility as possible to all concerned in the hopes of minimizing the impact, but the suddenness of the change is obviously a concern.”

Dealers have already placed or are ready to place orders for the upcoming season but now have to factor in ASA’s ruling.

“It obviously makes people hesitant in buying,” says Dave Schwartz, general manager of Bergen Batting Center in River Edge, NJ, which sells some 1000 softball and baseball bats a year. “People want to know what is legal and what isn’t. We’ve been burned before. And it’s happening constantly in men’s slow pitch,” Schwartz adds. “You can’t hang retailers and manufacturers out to dry.”

Meanwhile, vendors debate on what to do next. “We have continued to ship orders on schedule, though some retailers have hesitated before bringing in bats that may be affected,” Easton’s Zlaket notes.

He says that Easton is working with ASA “to try to address the situation in a way that is mutually acceptable.” Although Zlaket did not define “mutually acceptable,” no doubt Easton and others would applaud a favorable ruling in Worth’s lawsuit, requiring ASA to delay the ruling and grandfather existing bats.

Schwartz says that the ASA standard creates confusion because even though it only affects bats used in ASA tournament play, many leagues loosely follow the ASA guidelines. He applauds baseball for getting it right the first time. “I just wish they (ASA) would follow baseball’s lead. It just seems like baseball got everything set and it’s done.”

That’s exactly what Easton is advocating, Zlaket says diplomatically. “We feel strongly that any future rule changes should be accompanied by reasonable phase-in and grandfathering periods so the players, retailers and manufacturers don’t suffer.”

In the meantime, Zlaket suggests dealers stay on top of the changes and ask their reps and association directors a lot of questions to prepare for the upcoming season.

Time marches on

As the fashion watch market continues to expand to include an ever-widening category of refreshing, directional looks, the face of fashion watches changes with the wind. Increasingly, consumers are looking for timepieces with flair, and generally, they are willing to spend a little more to get the looks that you don’t see on a wrist every day. Manufacturers are sensing the importance of new concepts in fashion watches, and, by way of response, many are taking the initiative to challenge the looks of recent years with fresh, inventive design.

I would like to see the computer as functional in design, not just as a data collector,” says Lawrence Gartel, founder of Artwatch. For thirteen years, Gartel has been exploring the design capacities of computers, using them to create the graphic images that may one day–if Gartel and his compatriots in computer design have their way–constitute an entirely new realm of visual art. Most recently, however, Gartel’s computer-generated images have been finding their way onto men’s and women’s watch faces.

“We started about six months ago and basically, our whole purpose was to create a watch that was fun, sophisticated and classy, all at the same time,” he says. Although the faces of Artwatch timepieces range from abstract compositions of multicolor cubes to doll faces and faux marble, Gartel conceives of each design very much as an artistic exercise. As he puts it, “These are not throwaway watches.”

“There is so much plastic in the market,” Gartel asserts, “and our society has become accustomed to throwaway everything, from pens and razors to watches. I felt that the market needed something for business people to wear that was art as well as fashion. I wanted to bring an upscale element into a watch that isn’t the $9000 Rolex and wouldn’t be something stuffy. With a watch that has an artistic element, people see it as something to collect, something one holds onto.”

To be sure, there are certain advantages to computer-aided design. Gartel points out that however quickly fashions may change, he has the capacity to update the Artwatch lines. “In a matter of hours, I can do color changes that would normally take weeks; or if the trend is toward flowers, we can have a line ready in no time.” At the same time, Gartel is quick to assert that the design work is painstaking and whatever advantages a computer may offer, “the artist remains an artist.”

Artwatch timepieces retail at Fortunoff, and wholesale prices vary depending on the leather used in the band: $59 for smooth leather to $90 for crocodile.

Kirk’s Folly, a fashion jewelry firm here introduced watches into their line three years ago with a collection comprised of six styles; today, each new fashion jewelry collection includes sixty or more watch styles. “We do each watch collection to match the jewelry that we are putting out,” says Craig Chorney, one of its heads. To Chorney, that consistency between the jewelry and watch lines is particularly important, with consumers now preferring their own jewelry ensemoles to set looks.

Chorney also believes that buyers are leaning in similar directions. “Buyers,” he says, “want to enhance their departments, not with the everyday Timex and Seiko looks, but with different, unusual merchandise that can be worn every day.

“That’s what gets the customer excited,” he adds, “and that’s what generates sales.”

Chorney sees the trend in fashion watches as favoring what he calls an upscale look. “People have gone to low points in the watch market and now they are looking not only for a unique fashion look, but for quality and durability as well.” Among several recent additions to the Kirk’s Folly collection that have proven to be strong, charm watches have done particularly well. Either as a charm on a bracelet or as a bracelet watch with a few charms, these styles offer something Chorney feels strongly about in today’s fashion watch market: new concepts. “Everyone has fashion watches but this is something new to the market–it’s fun, unique and different.”

With wholesale price points ranging from $38 to $100, the watch lines at Kirk’s Folly have consistently been reasonable enough not only to account for 20% of Kirk’s Folly’s business, but also to attract buyers from Macy’s Herald Square; Bloomingdale’s, New York; Sake, New York; Burdine’s; Bullock’s; Spiegel and Fortunoff.

Barely a year ago, Lisa Jenks burst onto the fashion jewelry market with her elegant premier collection of sterling jewelry and watches. Today, Jenks continues to sell Barneys New York, and herwatches–wholesaling for $265 to $295–consistently account for 15 to 20% of her business. For Jenks, the early decision to include watches in the collection was important. “I saw watches as a way to make the line distinctive,” she says.

Jenks’s consistency of design, as well as her decision to design jewelry and watches and to show them together, has turned out to be a particularly strong selling point for her merchandise. Though Jenks began her watch line with four bracelet styles reminiscent of the bracelets in her line, she has since added watches of various sizes on crocodile straps.

“Buyers,” says Jenks, “always buy watches together with bracelets, as a set. Consumers then respond to buying two looks: They can dress up the watch with a bracelet or wear it alone.” Jenks agrees that, today, consumers are going less for basics and more for that certain flair, what she terms a “difference.”

“If you can afford it,” Jenks surmises, “the natural movement is toward upscale merchandise. People are willing to spend higher for something that is more than functional, something decorative but something with permanence.”