NEW YORK -- As many department stores cut back on customer service and pare down their resources, swimwear specialty stores are seeing new growth opportunities. Offering a breadth of vendors, an intimate shopping environment and sophisticated customer service, specialty stores say they're gaining ground in the swimwear scene.

Here, a look at some key specialty stores in various cities around the country.

Dallas

Knowledgeable salespeople, personal service and a wide variety of suits set Just Add Water apart from its department store competition, said Ron McCullars, president. He founded the Dallas-based chain of 10 swimwear stores 12 years ago with his wife, Katherine, executive vice president, and continues to manage it with her.

"There is always someone to help you here, and the sales associates spend a great deal of time with the customer," McCullars said. "I love having the department stores as competition because they have no service at all, but I'm highly envious of their gross margins and the things they can get from the manufacturers because of their sheer size. So we have to be a lot sharper."

Besides waiting hand and foot on shoppers, associates will deliver suits to homes for customers to try on or to take orders for alterations. "Buying a swimsuit is like buying lingerie -- it's really intimidating, so we have to make customers feel comfortable," said Katherine McCullars.

The other main priority is keeping sales associates up to date on fashion and fabric trends. Four times a year, Katherine McCullars gives pep talks at each store to teach associates what's coming in and how to offer sales tips and emphasize the importance of each customer.

With stores averaging 1,400 square feet in Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio, Just Add Water sells about 100,000 swimsuits each year. It caters primarily to a young and fit customer, moving more two-piece suits than maillots, but it also stocks styles for girls' sizes 7 to 14 and for elderly women.

"We try to offer every swimsuit that anybody would want, whether for fashion, competition or for elderly ladies," Katherine McCullars pointed out. The chain offers its own private label, mix-and-match swimsuit coordinates and does about 20 percent of its business in coverups, casual dresses, hats, a private label sunscreen line and other accessories.Its top swimwear resources are Apparel Venture Group's La Blanca, Citrus, Sassafras and Too Hot Brazil brands, Beach Patrol's Baja Blue, Daffy and Tango Rose labels, in addition to Anne Cole, Anne Klein and Gottex.

Best-selling styles this year have been textured and plaid fabrics, embellished looks, push-up bras and high-waisted bikinis. Going forward, the McCullars expect puckered, thermal and rib-knit textured fabrics will be strong, as well as sheer insets, illusion layered looks and racing stripes. As in ready-to-wear, bright colors are making a comeback for spring 1995.

Business is ahead only 5 percent this year, which Ron McCullars blames on overall sluggish spending in women's apparel. Added his wife, "The baby boomers are having babies and have different priorities."

Chicago

Specialty swimwear retailer Liquid Assets, which operates two stores in the Chicago suburbs and a recently opened unit on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, has seen business grow by 11 percent on a comparable-store basis, according to Greg Hightower, owner.

He said his stores differentiate themselves from the competition, mainly department stores, by offering a far broader selection and a sophisticated sales team. "After fashion, the fit is the most important thing," he said.

Hightower noted that different manufacturers' suits tend to work better on different body types. "The way to get fit is to carry a lot of different companies," he said.

However, at 238 different vendors, paperwork was getting out of control, Hightower said, and he would like to pare the list down to about 150.

Key trends at his stores this season have included separates, textured fabrics, prints and sportswear-influenced, denim-friendly colors like natural, navy, hunter green and wine.

Figure-enhancing suits have also done well. "The bust was big last year and is going to be even bigger this year," Hightower said.

Top vendors at Liquid Assets include Daffy, Jag, Sirena, Roxanne, Baja Blue, Raisins and Sassafras, he said.

Judy Abrams, owner of Labelle Swimwear & Lingerie, with two units in the Chicago suburbs, said her swimwear business was up by 40 percent this year.She also sees fitting the customer as her store's strength. With sizes ranging from teen size 12 up to 52, and cup sizes from A to FF, "We can accommodate just about any size," she said. "We direct the customers to the racks which have their body proportions."

This season, she said, underwire bra-styles and tummy-control suits have done well. Other hot looks included skater skirts, crochet, suits with back interest and sunflower prints.

Labelle's key vendors include Roxanne, Gottex, Jantzen, Sirena, Backflips, La Blanca and Sassafras, Abrams said.

LOS Angeles

At Diane's, a swimwear specialty store with 14 locations in Southern California, business has been solid despite the choppy waters of the California recession. Best-selling labels include Mossimo, Tango Rose, Daffy, Raisins, Anne Cole, Citrus, La Blanca, Sunset and Calvin Klein.

Alison Johnson, buyer for the store, said a boom in the separates business has helped keep business strong. She estimated that 50 percent of the store's volume is from customers buying separate tops and bottoms.

Johnson said the store's high level of service also has helped keep the store afloat in the tough retail climate. She said she does not consider department stores or catalogs competition because they do not give customers the personal attention they need when purchasing a new swimsuit, which she said can be a traumatic experience.

"The girls in Diane's are trained to fit a woman in a bathing suit," Johnson said. "That's a big difference."

Atlanta

Jill Stickney, a manager for Atlanta Beach, said sales have been strong in the past few seasons, but this summer was difficult because of the constant rain that plagued the city. "We should have been up, but we were about even," she said.

The two-store chain, with one unit in Atlanta and a second in Marietta, sells everything from sexy suits to the most conservative. Stickney said her best-selling misses' lines are Gottex and La Blanca, while Baja Blue, Tango Rose and Mossimo are her top junior lines.

She said the store really doesn't have much competition locally. She said each store carries one of each style in every size and that their customer appreciates that."Serious swimsuit shoppers don't usually go to department stores. Our customers know we don't buy a lot of any one suit," she said. "It's especially important to girls going on spring break that no one else has their suit."

Washington, D.C.

Special services, a broad merchandise mix and an everyday discount are bringing in business for The Bikini Shops, two swimwear specialty stores in Washington, D.C., according to the stores' owner, Colleen Corrigan.

"We are getting people that have in the past gone to larger department stores because we are specializing in items they do not carry," Corrigan said. The merchandise includes two-piece "fitness-oriented" suits made by Speedo and Arena, top and bottom separates, thongs (which are illegal in neighboring Maryland) and cup sizes D and DD. Corrigan would not reveal sales figures, but said sales are growing enough that she's considering opening a third shop.

Between 10 and 15 percent of suits sold in The Bikini Shops feature D and DD cup sizes, most in youthful styles, rather than the more modest suits made for older women that often are the only large-cup suits available in department stores, Corrigan said. Many of the D and DD customers are lawyers and other professionals who have recently had their busts augmented, and also dancers who work at two nearby go-go bars, said Corrigan, who has been running one of her downtown locations for nine years and the second for five years.

Corrigan said the store sells a lot of bra pads and push-up pads, although the current popularity of bust surgery means some customers are asking for bra pads one year and the next year asking for D cups.

Baja Blue and Tango Rose make among the best D-cup suits because they feature adjustable straps, Corrigan said. Also, many makers offer only C-D cups, which are too small for true D-cup women, she said. Another popular style at The Bikini Shops is a two-piece suit with shorts on the bottom in a checked fabric. These are made by Take Cover and Body Glove, said Corrigan, who sold out of them. Suits on the drawing board for next year are showing great promise at The Bikini Shops, which test-market for manufacturers Sessa and Sassafras. The shops quickly sold out of two styles of suits slated for the market for next season, both featuring stomach cut-outs, one in gold and the other a leopard look. Gold and silver suits are particularly popular among black women, Corrigan added. Even though thongs are illegal in Maryland, which boasts many of the beaches frequented by Washingtonians, Corrigan said she sells a healthy number of the skimpy bottoms to Washington's large population of diplomats and international business people, and to women whose jobs require a lot of travel.As for price, Corrigan bolsters The Bikini Shops' competitiveness with an everyday "buy one, get one at half price" policy and with $5-off coupons that frequently run in local newspapers, Corrigan said.

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