By  on January 28, 2013

Innerwear needs to get its groove back.

While high-powered names like Victoria’s Secret have made lingerie an aspirational product with its sexy Angels, it appears sex appeal and a palette of candy colors will not be enough to carry the entire $11.05 billion innerwear industry in 2013.

A lack of creativity and innovation in the intimate apparel market — particularly the bra, panty and shapewear segment — took its toll on the industry’s overall dollar and unit sales from Jan. 1 through Nov. 1, 2012, according to the most recent report by consumer research firm The NPD Group Inc.

Through 2010, Lingerie business continued to remain healthy in the midst of the 2008 recession and the postrecession doldrums, with the category generating sales gains in the 2 to 3 percent range. But total dollar sales have since slipped by 0.2 percent to $11.05 billion in the 10 months ended Nov. 1. Unit share in the same period dropped 3.7 percent to 1.4 million, reported NPD.

In an attempt to fuel business over the past several seasons, intimate apparel vendors have been spicing up assortments of bras, underwear and daywear with vibrant fashion colors and prints. Their goal is to hold consumers’ attention and step up interest in building lingerie wardrobes. The idea mirrors recoloring strategies used by commodity-type underwear labels, as well as the premium and contemporary denim business, which introduced fashion colors to woo consumers who already had closets full of denim.

But the novelty of a new color or print has short-term appeal and makers as well as merchants continue to look for the next big idea in intimates.

So far, the creative spark is not coming from the foundations field, where competition for market share is fierce and practically every bra brand has become a specialist of basic shapewear in black, white and beige.

The action in 2012 was generated by the sleepwear category, an area that’s been dormant for more than a decade. A main reason has been the focus on innovative new fabrics such as MicroModal, jerseys and a host of Lycra spandex-blend cottons and microfibers that have a soft, butterlike hand.

The numbers tell the story. Top-selling innerwear categories in the 10 months through Nov. 1 include:

• Pajama sets, which gained 7.7 percent in dollar sales.

• Bathrobes, jumping 5.4 percent.

• Pajama tops, which posted a 4.2 percent increase.

In the same period, dollar sales of bras declined 1.3 percent, shapewear dipped 1.6 percent, and daywear slid 1.8 percent.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD, said a good dose of creativity will be needed to pique consumers’ interest this year and keep competition from other categories, like activewear, at bay.

“We’ve become so risk-averse we’re almost boring the customer to death,” said Cohen. “Pajamas and robes should never be the key drivers in intimate apparel. The secret to success in intimates is growing across a wide sector of categories. Intimate apparel tends to be an emotional purchase, and without the creative spark in the product or its message, it’s difficult to get women — and men — to think about it….Without a sexy [intimate apparel] potion, other categories such as athletic wear have been allowed to cut innerwear out of the picture….Athleticwear has been selling in place of pajama bottoms.”

Dollar sales of women’s pajama bottoms fell 2.3 percent, while pajama tops can attribute their 4.2 percent gain largely to dual-purpose styles and a “boyfriend shirt” trend, said Cohen.

Regarding shapewear, a once-booming category, Cohen observed, “Women are not building shapewear wardrobes anymore, they’re just adding to it. Also, shapewear is one of the few areas where prices went down. There’s a lot of competition out there.”

The average price of shapewear fell 1.2 percent to $17.23.

Robes and pajama sets have been strong categories because of “fluffier new fabrics that make the merchandise exciting,” said Cohen.

“Color is not enough, and women are buying across a larger sector of categories. Without that emotional connection, we are not going to see growth…The bra business is down partly because of [store] promotions, but it’s more about the absence of new product and technology. We didn’t have the Wonderbra, we had color. There’s been more innovation in running shoes than there’s been in intimate apparel,” he said, “and the industry has allowed women to focus more on their feet and shoes than their bras.”

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