By  on December 21, 2011

In the maternity apparel business, a pregnant pause can mean missed opportunity.

So it’s hardly surprising that Philadelphia-based Destination Maternity Corp., purportedly the largest maternity retailer in the world, has been putting extra effort into building its premium and better denim assortment at its upscale A Pea in the Pod division, which operates 43 stores, and in its 80 Destination Maternity stores, which carry merchandise both from Pea and its more casual, midtier Motherhood Maternity division.

The window of opportunity doesn’t open wide, and it’s not open for long. Lisa Hendrickson, Destination Maternity’s chief merchandising officer, notes that most women don’t begin to build their maternity wardrobes until the second trimester of their pregnancies, usually putting off major purchases until the fourth month.

“Denim continues to be a strong category for us,” she told WWD. “It’s always been a staple of our maternity business and it’s one of the first things a woman invests in. Jeans are a staple part of her wardrobe, and they’re one of the items that gets uncomfortable first.”

To make sure that Pea and Destination Maternity get their share of the denim dollars of the affluent woman-with-child, the company has built a stable of premium denim brands, the majority of which sell their wares to Pea, the Destination Maternity unit and associated Web sites on an exclusive basis within the maternity market. The current lineup includes Seven For All Mankind, Paige, AG, Citizens for Humanity, Joe’s Jeans, True Religion, Hudson, J Brand, Buffalo, Mavi and, beginning this month, Silver.

“For the most part, we try to work exclusively with our vendors so that the customer knows she can get those premium brands only at our stores,” Hendrickson noted. “We want long-term relationships with our vendors. We want to be important to them and them important to us.”

She didn’t divulge sales figures or average pricing in the category, but described it as a robust business with healthy margins: “I can’t say we’re selling thousands of pairs at our top price point of $285, but we’re selling a lot of denim. There’s a wide breadth to the assortment and there’s less price resistance than one might think. Not every woman buys jeans when she’s pregnant, but it’s pretty close.”

At A Pea in the Pod, prices start at $89.50 as opposed to $24.98 at Motherhood Maternity, which dwarfs the other divisions with 535 units.

The increased flexibility of jeans — whether for casual wear, work or going out — has added to their salability, and the Pea assortment has been tailored to meet the special characteristics of the brands represented. Joe’s, for instance, has strength in petites. J Brand covers the cleaner, darker part of the market, while the addition of Silver allows the store to make a more powerful statement with stitching, washes and pocket designs.

Michael Silver, Silver’s president, welcomed the opportunity to sell Destination Maternity product on an exclusive basis, having foregone the maternity business since the closure of its one major maternity account more than 10 years ago.

“It was a great business, and then it was sort of out of mind,” he said. “But it always made sense that a pregnant fashion customer would have an option other than just buying larger Juicy sweatpants.”

Silver conceded that the production runs in maternity wouldn’t afford the economies of scale one can get with regular sizes, making it a natural for higher-margin premium brands as opposed to his self-described “midluxury” positioning or more popular-price orientation. Still, Destination Maternity simplifies the process, and makes it more cost-effective to do so, by retrofitting the majority of the jeans and other bottoms it buys from vendors with its patented Secret Fit Belly construction, which substitutes a stretch knit panel for the upper part of the pants.

Attracted to niche businesses, such as extended sizes, Silver welcomed the chance to build a relationship. “They made it easy,” he recalled. “They said, ‘We’ve got the market and we’ll do a lot of the work.’”

Hendrickson said that, throughout all its divisions, the company recommends that women, other than those who experience a high level of weight gain during their pregnancies, stick with their pre-pregnancy sizes and allow the Secret Fit Belly to undertake expansion for them. For customers who aren’t in close proximity to a Pea or DM store, the entire assortment is available online. “It’s a very healthy business online,” she noted. “If someone’s a bit nervous about the sizing, they can get two pairs of jeans and return one.”

In the year ended Sept. 30, the company’s Internet sales were up 22 percent, helping to lift overall revenues 2.7 percent, to $545.4 million. Net income rose 36.6 percent to $23 million, or $1.75 a diluted share. In addition to the 658 stores operated at year’s end, the firm had nearly 1,700 leased departments at stores including Macy’s, Sears and Kmart.

While jeans sizing remains the same for most pregnant women, the same can’t be said for their lingerie. All store staff are trained to do bra fittings and recommend nursing bras as women approach their due dates. Although they’ve shown interest in premium jeans, pregnant women seem to open up their wallets widest when it’s time to get outfitted for their baby showers. “That’s when they know there’ll be a lot of pictures taken that will be around for a lot of years,” said Hendrickson.

She added that the company has availed itself of various social media to reach out to the newly pregnant and reaches out to bloggers addressing the needs of expectant moms. It also attempts to connect with pregnant women through the offices of obstetricians and gynecologists.

Pregnant women are often gift recipients, but there’s no registration mechanism, as with brides-to-be, or public database of those approaching motherhood.

“As far as we know, there aren’t public records until the child is born,” Hendrickson said, “and that’s too late for us.”

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