SARASOTA, Fla.--Swimwear at the mass market level is getting a fashion injection--and with it, an increase in sales. Fresh new looks from top vendors and celebrity endorsements have strengthened both sales and credibility at the mass level, according to industry observers. In light of weak performances in apparel, mass retailers are cautiously optimistic that swimwear may in fact provide a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster year. "The Kathy Ireland line has been a revolution," says Rocco Ingemi, misses' swimwear buyer at Kmart. "We launched it in spring of '94 and doubled our buy this year based upon the results we had last season. The styling is great and consumers love it." The Kathy Ireland line is exclusive to Kmart. Other mass outlets have also experienced enthusiastic consumer response. Bradlees, Caldor, Hills Stores, Target, Venture and Wal-Mart's swimwear departments are all getting a shot in the arm from the mass labels of such well-respected vendors as Authentic Fitness (Catalina Sportswear); Body ID; Dave Goldberg (Sasson); Jantzen; Raj Manufacturing (Beach Lingo); A.H. Schreiber (Beach Native) and Sirena (under private label). According to the NPD Group, total women's swimwear sales in the mass market currently account for $350 million in retail sales. This is up from $300 million two years ago. In contrast, the total women's swimwear market accounts for $1.2 billion in sales and has been tracking flat for the past two years. "We have had tremendous success with both Body ID and Beach Native," reports Bradlees misses' swimwear buyer Patty Gallagher. "We're finding that our success has been with vendors we have great partnerships with--where we can call up and say, 'Hey, we've got great weather, get more suits here tomorrow."' What these vendors answer the call with are suits that often have the same looks that are big in traditional retail: retro prints, uplift bra tops, separate bra tops and bottoms, and shape-enhancers. As Stephen Sibert, vice president of retail affairs and industry research at the International Mass Retail Association, based in Washington, D.C., explains, "We're at a point where the mass market has evolved into a fashion-forward market. It's not what it was 24 months ago. "They realize they've got the consumer hooked on value. Offering the latest fashion is the only way to keep them coming back--and to attract new customers." Sibert says techniques previously limited to department stores are now employed by the mass stores to insure up-to-the minute styles and profitable results. "They work with suppliers and test suits during the winter months in Florida and California," he says. But that's not all. "They're also doing point-of-sale research, cruising markets to see what's hot and attending fashion shows to get an idea of what trends are on the horizon," he adds. All of this is occurring at a time when swimwear suppliers are increasingly becoming more frustrated with department stores' mark-down tactics. To pump up early summer sales, stores are marking down their swimsuits earlier each year. This year, major department stores like Bloomingdale's and Macy's officially broke price May 31, with both announcing discounts in the New York Times of up to 40 percent on such labels as Gottex, Anne Cole and Sirena. The move to slash prices, which took place about a week earlier than it did last year, was driven by unusually cool weather in May and the need to pep up traffic. Given this scenario, some suppliers have decided to simply head straight to the discount source. And why not? Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report, a forecasting newsletter, points out: "If the product is already being discounted, why not sell in the mass market and get an increase in volume and exposure along with it? Kmart, for instance, has 2,400 stores nationwide. That's exposure." Barnard notes the consumer shift from traditional retail and specialty stores to the mass retailers, saying, "Shopping mass marketers is hip. Saving money is the Nineties reverse snob appeal." Not all vendors are comfortable discussing their mass retailer swimwear business. Telephone calls to Maxine of Hollywood and Sirena went unreturned. In other instances, requests for interviews were denied. Representatives of Authentic Fitness and Raj Manufacturing both said that they would rather focus on the lines they do for department stores than on their mass retail accounts. In many cases says Barnard, the reason is simple: "They're afraid of offending their department store customers by talking about what they do for their mass market customers." Barnard also believes they could be afraid of the department stores canceling their accounts. The fact that they don't want to talk about it, he says, indicates they're doing a tremendous business. Apparel consultant Andrew Jassin points to another issue: "Many times, these manufacturers will take reserve orders from the mass market; they'll ship the excess stock. That's not something they want to advertise. But it is something that works very well for both the vendor and the retailer, says Jassin. Body ID was launched in department stores eight years ago, and a year later began selling mass retailers as well. The line is now in Macy's and Bon Marche, as well as Bradlees and Kmart, among others. Pattie Byrnes-Kane, president and partner of Body ID, says the key to success in selling to the mass market is offering the consumer the very latest fashion for the lowest price. "Our plus sizes are doing great because we're offering fashion," she says, describing a flattering T-box pattern square-neck tank in a nylon and Lycra tricot fabric designed to minimize flaws, rather than a plain Lycra spandex tank. The line also offers such alternatives as "hip help," suits made with a print or a fabric that helps elongate the torso, thereby taking the attention away from the problem area. Also featured are suits that offer tummy control and thigh thinning. "Every woman doesn't have a perfect figure," insists Kane. "Our business has been, and will continue to be, filling a niche. We shop mass outlet stores constantly to find out what women are asking for and then give it to them at a great price." The trend toward figure-enhancing suits couldn't have come at a better time as far as Jantzen, another mass outlet vendor, is concerned. Owned by VF Corp., Jantzen intends to capitalize on the company's success with the Vassarette Her Secret power bra, according to Clark Tedrick, director of special markets. "We're aggressively marketing it and expect it to do phenomenally," said Tedrick. The line is carried at Bradlees, Hills Stores and Sears. Tedrick says that instead of approaching mass market swimwear as a price issue, "we approach it as fashion," and adds, "The only difference between a woman who shops at the mass level versus traditional retail is the pocketbook." Tedrick says production is all done domestically to speed up response time to retailers and trends, and that the goal is to address every consumer. "We try to hit all segments," he adds. "That means interpreting whatever fashion trend is out there into a swimsuit that can work for every level of consumer." By targeting the contemporary market and keeping the retail price point under $25, Kathy Ireland has helped put Kmart's swimwear on the map almost overnight. Ireland says she was approached many times by designers and boutiques, but none were able to do a line for the price points she wanted. "I always thought that if I could do my own swimwear I would want my friends to be able to afford it," Ireland says. The line has struck a chord, she believes, because she's giving women what they want. "You have to listen to the customer. Every woman wants to feel sexy in a suit. But they also want a little coverage." Although Kmart declined to give the manufacturer's name, Ireland says she picks the fabric and personally takes a team out to test the suits before they hit the market. "We gave them to women to wear last winter. We told them to swim, surf and give us their feedback," says Ireland. "The styling is important to me, but the suits have to be able to move. The only way to find out is to have people try them." Designer Maria DeLisi of Dave Goldberg says the company's Sasson and Seafair lines, which sell in Kmart at an average price of $25, do well because of the broad consumer base. "Department store buyers are there buying household items and get diverted, so you get that customer as well as the mass consumer," said DeLisi. She also thinks volume can affect how trendy a suit might be. "Because of volume it can be difficult to be right on with the trends," she said. "But it's getting closer and closer." Chuck Handy, vice president of sales at A.H. Schreiber, credits designer Linda Scalbom with much of the success of Beach Native. The line is carried in Bradlees and in Venture Stores and retails between $24 and $36. "Linda does all the things like going to shows and keeping a close eye on fashion, but she also gets involved in merchandising and sales," says Handy. "She takes this research and produces a line where there's continuity throughout, rather than a different story for each style. This, I think, helps separate us from the competition." In addition to Scalbom, Handy also thinks logistics are responsible, adding, "I receive very few orders by hand. Most everyone in the mass market is using EDI." He believes it's an expedient and cost-effective method, and says, "The errors incurred in EDI are minuscule." Time is saved as well. "The retailers communicate with me by computer," continues Handy. "I communicate with the factory by computer. The suits are laser cut in the factory. The sku information comes from computer and we print our own tickets. It's all very high tech. They [the retailers] have it down to a science." According to Patty Gallagher, Bradlees is set up with EDI, and she hopes to do more swimwear with it next year. "We're doing some of our communicating with vendors on the computer now," she says. "Next season we plan to do all of it. When I took over swimwear five years ago, all it consisted of was basic tanks. Now we have suits with great quality and style." Gallagher also says she believes consumers will pay more for something they like. "Our price points average between $16.99 and $44.99, and we sell a lot between $35 and $40," she says. "Quality and price are important, but fit is number one." At Target Stores, a spokeswoman commented that consumer interest and sales are both up: "All the new details in construction, i.e. padded and uplift bras, have really helped our swimwear business," she said. "We're especially seeing growth in the two-piece segment because of this." Ingemi says fashion remains the strongest story in Kmart's swimwear. "Anything with fashion, especially Kathy Ireland, is outselling things that are missy looking," he says. Traditionally, Ingemi says, Kmart has been "very print driven," but the Ireland line has helped change that. "It's added a lot of freshness and focus to swimwear. We've discovered that the customer really cares about fashion," he says. "It wasn't like this three or four years ago. The market has changed considerably." So has the advertising. Once resigned to featuring the latest advancements in garden hoses or household equipment on the cover, mass circulars have taken on a more titillating look. Says Beach Native's Chuck Handy, "These people do circulars every week advertising household stuff. But what's usually on the cover? Swimwear."
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