By  on April 5, 2010

Spring is signaling a bump in retail lingerie sales, with merchants citing an improved customer mood and pent-up demand for items that are fun, sexy and whimsical.

Retailers said consumers spent more in March than a year ago on pretty little nothings, with increases ranging from the mid-single digits to as much as 33 percent or more. They anticipate the upswing will have staying power as the economy slowly regains its footing and the appetite for fashion merchandise grows. Although value remains key at major stores, specialty merchants said they are seeing less price resistance.

Retailers said customers in spring 2009 were either not spending or buying one replacement item such as an everyday bra or a basic pair of undies. But beginning last month, they began buying multiple fashion items.

Some retailers, mainly specialty boutiques, said customers were shopping for lingerie, sleepwear, lounge and swimwear items they can wear while traveling, or for special occasions, such as weddings.

“Total intimate apparel and sleepwear business is seeing positive growth, but it’s recovering slower than we would like,” said Jonathan Greller, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of intimates, men’s apparel and children’s wear at Lord & Taylor. “We’re seeing single-digit increases [in intimates] while the store [overall] is seeing mid-to-double-digit increases. However, the consumer is definitely looking for value and name brands at a price, and they are starting to buy multiples, which they shied away from last year.”

The best-selling classifications are heritage brand foundations at value prices and key items such as coordinating bra-and-panty sets with a fashion twist, playful chemises and baby dolls, lingerie-looking shapewear, classic, dual-purpose cotton pajamas, and novelty thongs and boyshorts in fashion colors and prints.

Another top area is bridal lingerie, sleepwear and robe sets, which retailers single out as a seasonless line of business for both brides and bridal gift-giving. Also strong are full-figure bras as well as seamless T-shirt bras, which continue to sell well across the country because they give a smooth silhouette underneath knits and figure-hugging tops.

The spring rally in intimates comes as The NPD Group Inc.-Consumer Tracking Service reported total annual sales of innerwear from January 2008 to December 2009 inched up 0.7 percent to $10.74 billion — a relatively strong showing in the recession.

Greller said Wacoal has been the top-selling bra brand at Lord & Taylor, with select full-figure bras selling for $48, Wacoal’s Awareness Bra, $62, and the Seamless Minimizer, $65. “The consumer is picking up a $48 bra when she’s buying a $62 bra because of the value,” he said.

Greller singled out three best-selling classifications: low-rise and signature thongs in fashion colors by Hanky Panky, Spanx’s new Slimplicity shapewear group of separates, and denim and Lycra spandex leggings by Hue, which are sold in the innerwear department.

Deborah Walters, senior vice president and gmm of beauty, fragrance and intimates at Saks Fifth Avenue, said shapewear and bridal lingerie and sleepwear were best-selling categories.

“We’re seeing strong growth in the shapewear category,” she said. “Our customer is truly embracing new and innovative products such as Spanx Haute Contour, Spanx Slimplicity and Skinny Britches, all of which are redefining the look and feel of shapewear.”

The Spanx Skinny Britches, in a variety of bright colors, is a strong seller, along with Spanx Haute Contour and Spanx Simplicity, Walters said, adding, “The styles are very sleek and modern and can be worn under suits and jackets as fitted tanks.”

Regarding bridal, Walters said sales of brands such as Hanky Panky and In Bloom were robust. She singled out a baby blue chemise from Hanky Panky, which retails for $96, and an ivory baby doll with matching robe from In Bloom for $136, as top sellers.

Linda LoRe, president of Frederick’s of Hollywood Group, said color was making the biggest impact on customers.

“Overall, fresh color combinations, including navy and white, are trending to be bestsellers,” she said. “This is true across categories from lingerie to foundations and bras. Constructed lingerie with whimsical design elements inspired by “Alice in Wonderland,” such as exaggerated satin bows is on trend and proving to be bestsellers, as well.”

Frederick’s of Hollywood is also boosting its corset offerings. “We took our customers love of a halter neckline and added that silhouette to our corset offerings with styles like the Hollywood Dream Halter corset, which has proven to be a bestseller,” LoRe said. “With a duality that allows them to be worn as both innerwear and outerwear, corsets are an attractive purchase because our customers are looking for sexy fashion pieces at a great value.

LoRe said top-selling items for spring include: the Dream Halter Corset, $62; the Menswear Pinstripe Halter Corset, $58; the Exxtreme Cleavage Satin & Lace bra and Full Figure Corset Bra, each $24.50, and the Chemeddy, a chemise-teddy combo, $29.

The retailer also sees opportunity in bridal.

“Frederick’s of Hollywood has become a shop for all stages of the wedding, from the bachelorette party, shower and wedding day to the honeymoon,” LoRe said. “Our best-selling bridal lingerie represents items that have special details like rhinestones, sequins, or lace trim, and of course a touch of blue.” The number one item: the Tiny Dancer Bra and Skirt, $42.

Addressing key trends, Mary Krug, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel at Neiman Marcus, said, “Shapewear across the board” was a top classification.

“The newest silhouette for spring is the under-the-bra shaping camisole and it is performing very well,” she said. “Color in foundations, especially blue shades is strong, as well as bandeaus, particularly lace, in both colors and neutrals.”

Other best-selling areas at Neiman Marcus include loungewear, yoga-inspired looks, luxurious lightweight cashmere for warmer weather, and bridal, “especially flirty chemises.”

Elizabeth Hospodar. operating vice president and dmm of intimate apparel at Bloomingdale’s, said customers are “shying away from more traditional intimate apparel.”

“Cami bras from Wacoal and Natori with intimate lace details, as well as the Chantelle Icone collection, are top sellers for spring. Customers have also shown a great response to the new Tech Fit bra from Le Mystere,” Hospodar said.

Another key classification is bandeau bras by Top Secret and Hanky Panky.

“Our spring ‘Hot’ campaign featured visual elements both in-store and in catalogue to showcase this new trend, which embraces innerwear laced with outerwear,” she said.

Looking at sleepwear and at-homewear, Hospodar said, “A flirty chemise like the blush tone and black lace combination from In Bloom by Jonquil is definitely a must-have item for the spring.For a more casual approach, the loungewear sets from Calvin Klein and DKNY are stapl e pieces to own throughout all seasons.”

A spokeswoman for Victoria’s Secret said bestsellers were: the Miraculous Bra, which is rendered in a leopard and snake print and solid bright pink and violet, $45; the Body by Victoria Multi-Way Bra with convertible straps, $45 in solid colors and $48 in prints and The Lacie Collection of bright stretch lace. Panties are $16 each, or 3 pair for $30; a slip goes for $38, and a wireless bralette is $18. A baby doll and matching V-string sells for $48 in stores only.

Specialty boutiques said they were benefiting as the economic gains traction.

Melissa Silvetti, buyer for Journelle, a two-unit specialty chain in New York and Miami, said March sales “increased 34 percent over a year ago.…We started seeing a shift around Valentine’s Day. People had been holding back and buying only one set. Now, they are buying three sets or more.”

Bestsellers include a cotton knit and eyelet lace Gala Chemise by Elle Macpherson Intimates, $98, a sexy contour cup bra with eyelash lace by Mimi Holliday called Decolletage, $98, and a lace trim, floral-print cami and boy-cut pants of cotton knit by Eberjey, which sell for $60 ad $34, respectively.

Karen Fritts, owner of Loretta’s, a specialty boutique in Plano, Tex., said sales were up “10 to 12 percent against a year ago.”

“Customers seem to be less price conscious, willing to spend more, and they’re really enjoying fashion again,” Fritts said. Top-selling bra brands are Wacoal’s Retro Chic style listed at $58, Freya’s Arabella design for $58, Fantasie’s Savannah number for $80 and Panache’s Ariza style for $60.

Janet Holcomb, owner of The Fitting Touch, a specialty store in Birmingham, Ala., said her spring business was 47 percent higher than 2009.

“We are seeing a lot more people traveling, and we’re getting a lot of new customers who are vacationing and coming into town,” she said. “Customers are wardrobe building with three, four items, whereas last year they would come in and buy only one replacement item. Some say ‘I’m throwing everything out and I want to buy new.’ There’s quite a change out there.”

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