By  on June 30, 2008

Lingerie continues to be a die-hard category in the midst of a credit crunch, a bleak retail environment and the biggest drop in consumer confidence in 16 years.

Industry executives familiar with the economic recessions of the early Seventies, late Eighties and early Nineties are fond of comparing the impulse-buy of a sexy-looking bra and panties to that of a lipstick or nail polish, because of their fashionable yet inexpensive appeal.

Roz Harte, president and chief executive officer of Lances Harte, a private innerwear company in business for more than 40 years, observed, "Lingerie is a feel-good product during tough times. It's not a big-ticket item, but it makes a woman feel like she's buying something pretty without breaking the bank."

With annual retail sales of $12.6 billion in 2007, the burgeoning appetite for frilly little nothings and bedtime fare is up 2 percent against a year ago, with 72 percent of consumers polled saying they purchased bras, underwear, daywear, shapers, corsetry, sleepwear, loungewear and robes in the past year, according to WWD's Where America Shops survey. A point of interest in the survey is the 2 percent gain among consumers buying innerwear in the past year. That uptick apparently reflects a continued shift in consumer attitudes toward lingerie as aspirational, glam apparel. The increase is generated mainly by three factors, according to industry executives: extensive exposure on fashion runways, magazines and the Internet; glitzy celeb moments on the red carpet with abundant push-up décolletage, and the slick marketing machine behind America's number-one specialty retailer of lingerie, Victoria's Secret.

Once again, Victoria's Secret, the $5.61 billion lingerie powerhouse that holds the lion's share of specialty store lingerie sales in the U.S., has maintained its turf as the go-to merchant for racy boudoir fare as well as collegiate-inspired pj's with its Pink brand. With its 1,020 brick-and-mortar stores in the U.S., risqué TV commercials and fashion runway extravaganzas, signature glossy catalogues and Web site that pulled in 2 million visitors in 2007, Victoria's Secret is on the national radar.

Victoria's Secret's fashion mix, teamed with sex appeal and supermodel bling, continues to turn consumers on. The numbers prove it, with consumers shopping for intimates over the past year at specialty channels up three points to 20 percent, while the percentage of those who regularly shop for intimates at Victoria's Secret jumped six points to 27 percent. And when asked which store consumers shop most often for lingerie, Victoria's Secret showed the largest increase among lingerie retailers, with a five point gain to 19 percent of the market.Though it led the survey as the place where shoppers most often go for innerwear and sleepwear with 21 percent of the market, Wal-Mart's share inched up just one point compared with last year, while Target remained unchanged at 9 percent.

With 7,357 Wal-Mart stores and Sam's Clubs in 14 markets, 2,555 of which are Wal-Mart Supercenters and 138 Neighborhood Markets, Wal-Mart spiked two points to 32 percent of consumers who were asked where they habitually shop for intimate apparel; Target advanced three points during the same period to 22 percent.

However, when asked where they purchased intimates over the past year, consumer turnout at discounters like Wal-Mart and Target was down two points to 29 percent.

Wal-Mart may offer great deals, but the intimate mix in the store features mostly basic merchandise in basic colors with little sizzle. Key bra and underwear brands include Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Playtex, as well as a smattering of a private brand, Smart & Sexy. Sleepwear is primarily private label in traditional silhouettes, and novelty characters such as Disney's Tinker Bell and organic cotton tops and pajama bottoms by Mutts round out the bedtime category.

Target, which operates 1,381 Target stores and 210 Super Targets, is more or less in the same conservative league, and offers a similar mélange of basic innerwear product, primarily traditional bras and underwear by private brands Gilligan & O'Malley and Xhiliration, as well as the licensed line of novelty sleepwear by Nick & Nora.

Meanwhile, the department store channel posted a one point decline to 31 percent of shoppers who bought intimates there in the past year. The common denominator on the selling floor and the stores' e-commerce businesses is private label and national brands. After more than a decade of promoting national bra brands year-round with gimmicky "buy one, get two" promotions, the allure and excitement of buying bras at department stores has apparently worn thin. As a result, a number of major stores have embarked on a new course this year by giving more real estate to smaller fashion labels that have a certain cachet, and allotting less space to generic-looking national brands.

When it came to which department stores consumers shop consistently for lingerie and sleepwear, Kohl's gained two points to 21 percent, while J.C. Penney dropped four points to a 17 percent share. The department store shopped most often for the category was Kohl's, which gained a point to 11 percent, while Penney's was down three points to 6 percent.Kohl's carries a wide assortment of national bra brands including Vanity Fair, Maidenform, Barely There, Playtex and Olga, and exclusives like Simply Vera Vera Wang. On the other hand, Penney's relies heavily on its proprietary brand, Ambrielle, as well as Glamourize, and national brands such as Barely There, Warner's and Bali.

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