NEW YORK--In this age of retail consolidation, legwear vendors say they are working overtime for their key retailers to gain better floor space and to bolster sales. In the past year, growing numbers of sock and hosiery firms have been stocking shelves, training salespeople and doing whatever else is necessary to assure that their products are well placed on the sales floors of their top accounts. While legwear sales, especially socks and tights, have seen steady gains at retail in the past six months, several manufacturers said some stores don't have the manpower to maximize the business. Some firms said they had to offer their assistance or goods would be buried in stockrooms. They pointed to understaffed departments, uninformed salespeople and a surplus of products as to reasons why retailers are overloaded. "It's all about the retailers soaking the vendors for all that they can," added one sock resource, who asked not to be named. Here's what some manufacturers are investing in to protect their retail territory: Merchandisers Informative packaging Point-of-sale material In-store events Drop-shipping Earlier this month, 425 employees of the Kayser-Roth Corp.--all pulled from other duties--started helping department stores with displays, replenishment and fashion plans as part of its new program, which it calls RSVP. The company is investing $1 million in the ongoing program--covering travel expenses, higher salaries in some cases, and point-of-sale materials--which should provide better retail service and improve the placement of three licensed brands, Easy Spirit, Hue and Calvin Klein, according to Denise Landman, vice president for Calvin Klein hosiery. "In the more moderate stores, salespeople are spread thin, and they're often moved from department to department. When they're not stocking the floor with reorders, they have to cover for people's breaks," she said. "Having our own people visit the stores assures that we can maintain space and increase space where needed. "This is not a temporary thing. Retailers require that manufacturers make more of a commitment beyond seasonal seminars," she said. "Stores think about this before they place their business. If one of our brands looks as good as the next guy's brand, retailers ask, 'What else can Hue do for us?"' Ben Berger, a sock and tights manufacturers, started using counters--vendor employees who regularly check inventory--in its key accounts after several retailers requested the service 18 months ago, according to Michael Berger, vice-president. Now several times a month, counters visit about 600 of the company's accounts, he said. In addition to checking stock levels, replenishing merchandise and informing retailers about the product, counters assure that Ben Berger items are "in the most advantageous place for selling," Berger said. "Today, retailers don't really have a sales force. They have cash register clerks," he said. "In many stores, you have to hunt for someone for assistance. Making the salespeople more attentive helps to maximize sales." In the past two years, Ben Berger's production expenses have increased by "hundreds of thousands of dollars" annually because pre-ticketing, pre-packaging and labeling is mandated by the stores, said Berger. When there isn't enough lead time on an order to do special labeling and packaging at production facilities overseas, where labor is cheaper, the company routinely hires part-time employees--often a group of about 40--in its 35,000-square-foot distribution center in Secaucus, N.J., to attach hang tags, hooks and adhesive labels, he said. In addition to saving retailers' time and money, Ben Berger is making its products more self-service-oriented, Berger said. A growing number of retailers request that goods be shipped directly to their stores instead of distribution centers, said Berger, adding he expects that trend to continue. "I think retailers will continue to ask for more support," Berger said. "There are certain rules to doing business today, and manufacturers have the choice to play by them or not to play. We choose to play by them." In the past year, the Hot Sox Co., which manufactures and distributes its own line of socks and tights as well as its licensed Ralph Lauren Hosiery, increased its merchandising staff to 15 from nine to cover key accounts in Boston, Detroit and a few other major cities, according to Susan Spindell, sales manager. Late in the year, it also started using a group of part-time employees it calls "selling specialists" to help out on selling floors during peak periods. "The issue of offering ongoing support to retailers is already upon us. The question is, 'What level will we do it on?"' she said. "One empty peg represents lost business. That kills me." While Hot Sox continues to hold breakfast meetings with retailers at the onset of each season to highlight new products, the company is aware of the high turnover rate among some retailers. "I want salespeople to be educated about my products, and I'll give them coffee and bagels. But there's no guarantee that they'll be working there three months or a year from now. In the months ahead, Hot Sox plans to expand its use of selling specialists to increase sales. During the eight weekends before Christmas, Hot Sox specialists were assigned to Macy's East and Bloomingdale's flagship stores to offer information, provide assistance and "to do everything but ring up sales," she said. With the extra sales force, daily sales increased by about 15 percent, Spindell said. The company plans to call in the selling specialists in March, Mother's Day and periodically throughout the year, she said. "We recognize our relationship with retailers as a partnership. We want to assure sell-throughs and avoid markdowns as much as they do," Spindell said. "If a retailer wants us to be in their store to offer more manpower or to provide customers with more information, we're there." In a radical move to gain more floor space and to improve business, Gold Toe, a sock label of Great American Knitting Mills, plans to open by July "For All Walks of Life" concept shops, which would feature legwear for men, women and children, according to James Williams, president of Great American Knitting Mills. Gold Toe will spend $75,000 on each shop, he said. The size of each shop will vary, but most will be about 800 square feet, Williams said. The concept shops will be staffed by Gold Toe employees or by the retailers' salespeople, he added. Williams said several of the company's top 20 accounts have agreed to open the in-store shops, but he declined to name them. Looking to create a powerful brand image, the proposed shop's fixtures, murals and point-of-sale visuals coordinate with the company's "For All Walks of Life" packaging. In the next year, Gold Toe will increase its in-store merchandising team by 20 percent, he added. Aiming to acquire better placement in key accounts, Pennaco Hosiery has substantially increased its point-of-sale materials in the past year, according to Alice Kaiser, marketing director. When legwear manufacturers make the product look more exciting, some retailers reward them with more floor space, she said. "Retailers are looking to manufacturers to make the hosiery department more exciting. It's a necessity," she said. "Now women can buy hosiery through computers--but not our brands. We have to give the customer a reason to come into the stores to see the differences among brands." For 1995, Pennaco's goal is to increase the use of its banners, shopping bags, brochures, postcards and bill enclosures from 50 percent of its key retailers to 75 percent, Kaiser said. In-store service is not new for everyone. It has been "a huge point of focus" at Hanes Hosiery since the late Eighties, according to Debbie Hobbs, vice president for Hanes and its licensed Donna Karan. But she indicated it's becoming increasingly necessary. "There's a lot more going on in the industry with new yarns, new products and new brands. It behooves our people to be in the stores telling customers about the benefits," she said.
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