WASHINGTON -- Discount doesn't have to be dreary, say manufacturers who supply the nation's mass merchants.

In fact, mass market retailers are increasingly using more sophisticated products and marketing techniques to lure shoppers from department and specialty stores.

In turn, many of the 400 mass merchandise suppliers who exhibited their wares Sunday and Monday at the International Mass Retail Association's four-day annual convention here -- which ended Tuesday -- said they're using television and magazine "lifestyle" ads featuring celebrities to broaden their reach, as well as putting more emphasis on brand concepts.

They are also making store displays more attractive and employing sophisticated merchandising techniques such as analyzing ZIP codes for mailings.

Following are some of the new lines and new directions of vendors at the IMRA show.

At Sara Lee Corp., women's jersey separates in complementary colors and prints are selling very well among traditional discount shoppers and crossover customers, said Martha M. Dally, executive vice president of the personal products group.

The company's new Hanes Her Way bodywear line, has been very hot since its introduction in April. Cotton-Lycra spandex bicycle shorts and cropped bra tops in brightly colored patterns retail for $5.99 to $7.99 per piece. Sizes run to extra large.

Also on display were shimmery bra-panty sets in raspberry, teal and bronze -- $12.99 for bras and $4.99 for panties.

Dally, whose company uses hang-tag questionnaires to find where their customers usually shop, said many new Hanes Her Way consumers are coming from The Gap and other stores, while the taste of traditional discount shoppers also is swinging toward comfortable, simple knits.

Wrangler, a VF Corp. division, and a major brand for Wal-Mart, Kmart and other discounters, has seen sales jump to $1 billion from $500 million three years ago. Women's jeans are Wrangler's fastest-growing category, although the company started shipping them just eight months ago.

"We're using our success in men's and boys' to propel women's," said Angelo LaGrega, vice president of consumer marketing.

LaGrega put Wrangler's share of the total jeans market at 19 percent, with about a third of the men's and boys' markets and 3 percent to 4 percent of women's."In the next three years we expect at least a 9 percent share in women's," he said. "We think there's a tremendous opportunity for a national brand."

Wrangler is targeting fit as a major selling point for its women's jeans.

At Fruit of the Loom, sales of women's casual wear rose to $265.4 million last year from $91 million in 1990, and there is still plenty of room to grow, said Richard Swanson, vice president for casual wear.

"We're doing more fashionable prints in daywear," said Swanson. "We have a more upscale look. We're expanding our product line to include more feminine styling as well as the basics. Fruit of the Loom says its biggest growth opportunity is in women's innerwear, where it has only about a 15 percent share of the market, compared with 25 percent for girls and more than 50 percent men's and boys, said Michael Auer, vice president of sales.

The company is replacing its standby cotton panties with a new non-slip variety now being shipped. Nationwide TV commercials show a woman changing clothes several times while her underwear "stays comfortably in place." Focus groups "have been very receptive" to the comfort idea, Auer said.

The new Down by the Shore line at HIS/Chic has a washed look with pale yellow and green T-shirts complementing light-blue and white jeans and shorts reminiscent of The Gap.

Chic's wrinkle-resistant, 100 percent cotton pleated pants for women are just starting to take off after three years on the market, said Denise Grande, vice president and fashion coordinator,.

The company is also planning to introduce sand-finished poly-cotton trousers for women.

Kellwood Corp., which makes apparel for the more traditional discount store customer under its Cape Cod and EnChante labels, displayed patchwork print dresses, appliqued terry cloth pantsuits, and short-sleeved denim dresses that sell for $22 at Wal-Mart.

Tultex Corp. is "chasing the department store business" with muted color dyes that resemble the washed look now popular in T-shirts and sweat clothes, said Walt Caruba, vice president of marketing..

The company also plans to introduce a 12.5-ounce weight in 50-50 cotton-polyester apparel, answering consumer demands for higher-quality products, Caruba said. While 5.5-ounce fabric was long the standard discount weight, shoppers now are buying 7-ounce and 9-ounce fabric. Target stores now sell nothing under 9 ounces, he said.About 50 percent of Tultex's products are women's, with 25 percent men's and 25 percent children's.

At Kayser Roth Corp., trouser socks are increasingly popular as more women shun pantyhose on office casual days, said James B. Mozingo, vice president, business development, legwear division.

Sales of socks and tights also have picked up, although the company's sheer hosiery brands such as No Nonsense still account for two-thirds of its legwear sales, he said.

Auburn Hosiery Mills started full-scale shipping of Coca-Cola label socks in January and is expecting strong sales stemming from Coke's name recognition, said Kevin Angliss, executive vice president and chief operating officer. Mass merchants have 60 percent of the athletic sock market, he said.

Auburn also is meeting the needs of the outdoors crowd with cushiony athletic socks in colors other than white -- mainly black, heather-gray and navy blue.

Revlon's customers are at the upper end of the mass market, so store presentation is perhaps the company's most important marketing tool, while value is a secondary -- though still important -- consideration, said Bill Acheson, senior vice president for the national accounts group.

Revlon is gearing up to promote its new Fire and Ice fragrance, which is being shipped in September and will be sold at retail for $15 to $27.

Revlon also is heavily promoting a new lipstick, Colorstay, which uses "breakthrough technology" that prevents it from being rubbed off, Acheson said. Commercials show Cindy Crawford kissing square-jawed men and leaving no embarrassing lipstick mark. Colorstay, which comes in a long, thin, black tube, will retail for $8 or $8.50, compared with $6.50 for Revlon's other lipsticks.

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