By Jane Applegate

Jane Applegate started covering entrepreneurs before most people even knew what or who they were. She’s the best-selling author of several books about small business, an award-winning filmmaker, and an entrepreneur herself. As a national correspondent for SmallBizDaily, Jane will be offering profiles about and advice from and for women in business.

When I met with Mary Jo Keeble, national sales manager for Fever Clothing, to collect marketing tips for small retailers, I first asked her what we will be buying for the Fall. Since moving back to New York from Vermont, I’m all about looking trendy.

“Pleather, slouchy sweaters, motorcycle or baseball jackets with zippers and multi-media tops,” Keeble, who has been in the fashion world for about 28 years, reveals.

Multi-media means a mix of fabric and knits or any combination of textures, including faux fur. Plaids and stripes are on the way back and watch out for wide-legged ‘gaucho-style’ pants. (Ugh. Not my favorite look).

This spring, Fever’s best-seller was a sheer blouse with three-quarter sleeves, a pleated front and a dyed-to-match tank to be worn underneath. Keeble, who was wearing a black knit dress and stiletto heels, says including the matching tank top has been a winning concept because it makes the blouse easy to wear no matter what kind of lingerie you own.

If you are still out shopping for spring, you’ll see lace everywhere and in every color. The trendy colors are neon lemon, orange and green. And, black and white is still very big for spring 2013, Keeble says. Bold, graphics and prints on shifts and skinny pants are also hot right now, she adds.

Fever is owned by privately-held Los Angeles-based John Paul Richard Inc. It has about 100 employees. The company’s in-house designers are based in California. The sales team works out of a spacious showroom on the edge of Times Square in New York City. The company specializes in selling trendy, mid-priced sweaters (most under $100), jackets and tops to big box giants like Costco. But they also sell to about 300 boutiques across the country.

“You can be in a little bitty town in Kansas and get the runway stuff very fast,” says Keeble. “We underestimate how fast small towns pick up all the trends.”

She says the big stores generate about 70 percent of the company’s revenues, but the 30 percent of sales to boutiques is where the profits are.

“The way for a mid-level company to be successful is to be multi-tiered—that means selling to small, specialty stores as well as TJ Maxx,” explains Keeble. “A department store will buy one sweater in four colors, but a boutique is more likely to buy a fashion novelty.”

Serving big and small stores is a way to ensure success.  “You can never count on that one big order from one big store,” she cautions. Yet, she says Costco recently ordered 250,000 Fever cardigan sweaters in six colors and sold about 100,000 in a week. That was a multi-million dollar deal.

The biggest challenge a manufacturer faces when selling to Costco is that all items have to be “tabled.” That means your item is piled up on a table—never hung nicely on hangers. And, it has to be an item that will appeal to eight out of 10 women, Keeble says. However, she adds, despite the hassles, manufacturers would be ‘crazy’ not to take an order from a retail giant like Costco.

So what tips does Keeble have for small retailers or manufacturers?

  • “Know your customer and don’t try to be all things to all people,” she says. Small retailers have to know what will sell because they are paying up front for every item they buy. Mistakes are costly because most manufacturers don’t take unsold items back.
  • “Ten out of ten items you buy won’t all be great, but do your research so you know all about the customers in your town.”

Jane Applegate is the author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business, published in all formats by Bloomberg/ Wiley. She’s a popular keynote speaker, producer and the co-founder of the, a new international site for women in business.

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