PARIS — France’s mass market retailers are sprucing up and placing emphasis on apparel after suffering from the fast-fashion blitz of the last five years.

Feeling the pressure from chains such as Zara and Hennes & Mauritz, France’s main hypermarket operators — Carrefour, Auchan and E. Leclerc — have become more reactive to the fashion cycle, while the supermarket chain Monoprix, partly owned by Galeries Lafayette, has found a niche by mixing basics and fashionable pieces.

The timing for fashion at bargain prices in France appears to be right. French consumers are more frugal in apparel spending now than two decades ago, with their annual apparel budget slipping to 3.9 percent of household income last year compared with 7.3 percent in 1980.

Meanwhile, shoppers have turned in greater numbers to fast-fashion retailers, which have gained an 8 percent share of the French apparel market over the last eight years. Hypermarkets have added 1 percent to their share of France’s $35 billion clothing market.

The explanation is simple: Hypermarkets have been unable to match the fast-fashion pace, which gets new styles into stores within weeks. Meanwhile, prices at chains such as H&M and Mango are often on par with theirs.

To compete, Carrefour is testing a new production model at its stores in Spain, where it has hired in-house designers to beef up its own labels, while the frequency with which new collections are fed to stores has been increased by 50 percent. But Carrefour has no plans to expand this model beyond Spain.

“The hypermarkets found themselves outdated in their apparel offer,” said Christian Devismes, retail analyst at Naxetis Capital here. “The problem is that they don’t have their own production facilities and their brands aren’t fashionable enough.”

But the mass market chains are becoming more brand-conscious. Carrefour has an exclusive distribution agreement with Cherokee and it has started to distribute Levi Strauss & Co.’s mass market brand, Signature, in France. Meanwhile, Auchan also has boosted its fashion quotient and has introduced the teen Mary Kate and Ashley line.

But until the hypermarkets build their own in-house brands, analysts remain skeptical that they will eat into the fast-fashion pie.“Monoprix has done the best job,” said Devismes. “Eighty-three percent of its apparel sales are with its own brand.”

Dominique Guisiano, apparel director at Monoprix, said, “We bring in new products every 15 days. France has seen a stark decline in spending in apparel over the last two decades. Today we must be up to date with the trends.”

Monoprix’s efforts have paid off. Sales of women’s apparel increased 7.6 percent in 2002.

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