NEW YORK--The big-name foundations companies are building ever-stronger partnerships with the mass merchandisers, as lines expand and business grows. With the continuing consolidation of department stores over the past several years, vendors have been selling more branded and private-label innerwear to mass channels to shore up figures, build a market for new brands and revitalize some old ones. The potency of the mass market is shown in figures compiled by The NPD Group for the American Apparel Manufacturers Association. In 1993, discounters accounted for 34.6 percent of the retail market share for bras, against 31.6 percent in 1992 and 30.4 percent in 1991. In shapewear, the discounters took 25.3 percent of the market in 1993, rising from a 22.4 percent share in 1992, which, however, did show a slight drop from 22.8 percent in 1991. Enthusiasm about the foundations category is also evident among some discounter executives. "Intimate apparel has outperformed the company rate [of growth] for the past couple of years. We have been pushing the fashion segment of our innerwear business, even more so than Kmart or Wal-Mart has over that period." said Don Hasek, divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel at Target Stores, Minneapolis. Hasek added that "the whole foundations area has seen growth, especially push-up bra business." Among the big vendors, Vanity Fair Mills took a major initiative four years ago, when it acquired the Vassarette label, a well-known department-store brand, and introduced the Vassarette brand to Hills Department Stores and Wal-Mart Stores. J. Thomson Wyatt, president of Vanity Fair Mills, said, "It's been a meteoric rise for us." First-year retail sales at 1,600 Wal-Mart units alone reportedly was $100 million. Since then, distribution has broadened to include other mass retailers, and annual retail sales are between $175 and $200 million, said Karyl Chongas, vice president and general manager for the Vassarette and Form-o-uth brands at Vanity Fair. Chongas noted that Vassarette's ad campaign, under the theme of "Very Romantic Lingerie," is being updated and will be featured exclusively on network TV in mid-August. The annual ad budget for Vassarette has been hiked "considerably" to be between $3 and $4 million, she said. "If you look at mass channels, there's a lot of TV and consumer advertising," said Chongas. "We feel the way to get the Vassarette name across is through advertising." Chongas further noted that mass merchandisers are jumping on fashion trends as fast as department stores. "There's no longer a lag between trends taking shape at department stores and then at mass merchandisers," said Chongas, noting a new padded, push-up bra by Vassarette called Her Secret, is being shipped to mass merchants this week. The trend for cleavage-enhancing bras, as noted, took off at department and major specialty stores in March when Gossard introduced its Super-Uplift push-up bra to the U.S. market, followed by the introduction of Wonderbra by Sara Lee Foundations in May. Both brands are sold to department and specialty stores. The Warnaco Group focuses on the mass market with its licensed Fruit of the Loom line. According to Linda J. Wachner, president, chairman and chief executive officer of Warnaco, the line has been "hugely successful." The company began shipping FTL products to Wal-Mart and Kmart in June 1992 and now has an 8 percent of the mass market in foundations, said Wachner. She added that she expects sales volume for the licensed FTL brand of women's bras, daywear and related items to double this year to about $66 million. She further noted that sport bras under the White Stag label have been selling "extremely well" at mass outlets for the past year. Lee A. Chaden, president and chief executive officer of Sara Lee Intimates, a division of Sara Lee Corp., said the Playtex brand is sold to all levels of distribution to "justify heavy TV advertising." "We've been able to build a very strong business with department stores, while co-existing with mass merchandisers," said Chaden. "The reason the trade goes along with it is because advertising gets the consumers into the stores." Playtex business with department stores and mass merchants each posted sales gains of slightly over 20 percent over the past year, said Chaden. Playtex's yearly ad budget is $20 million, he said. Chaden further noted that a value-price line for mass outlets called Smart Choices by Playtex has been "very successful." The line of eight bras and coordinating panties was introduced to Wal-Mart in spring 1992, and to Kmart and other mass outlets in 1993. Also rolled out to mass merchants this spring was a light control brief by Playtex Secrets. It is also sold in department stores, but features different hangers and hang-tags. In spring 1995, more line extensions of Playtex Secrets will be available to mass channels. A moderate control brief by Playtex Secrets continues to be sold exclusively at department stores, he said. Paul Mischinski, president and chief executive officer of Sara Lee Foundations, a sub-division of Sara Lee Intimates, commented: "The old days of private label and low-quality bras at mass merchandisers have basically disappeared. "There's more cross-channel shopping than ever before, and the options and price-value relationship offered by mass merchandisers are a long-term concern of department stores." Mischinski oversees foundations business under Bali, a department- store brand, and two mass labels--Hanes Her Way and Just My Size. Mischinski noted that the styling and merchandising of the Hanes Her Way brand was "relatively tired and needed more fashion and fusion. "We made a strategic decision this spring to add more color and prints," he said, noting that a "very aggressive product calendar" of fashion-forward looks will continue to build Hanes Her Way business. Mischinski added that Sara Lee also has "significant plans to go after the plus-size market" with its Just My Size brand of bras and panties over the next six months. "A number of mass merchandisers see plus-sizes as a big growth vehicle, and there are some who haven't quite seen the opportunity yet," said Mischinski. Jim Williams, vice president of sales for Bestform Foundations, a division of Itahaca Industries, said, "Business with the big three--Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target--over the past couple of years has exploded for us." Williams said the biggest segment of Bestform's business over the past year has posted sales gains of close to 20 percent. "Fashion has become very important," said Williams. "We expect to double business with mass outlets [this year] by developing new products within existing lines." Williams said Bestform does private label for Target; branded merchandise under the Lady Manhattan and Gitano labels for Wal-Mart, and the licensed Chic brand, the Bestform label and private label for Kmart. Jay Greenblatt, vice president of True Form Foundations, which specializes in control shapewear and is a division of Maidenform Inc., said, "We've greatly broadened our distribution to include chains and mass merchandisers. Before Maidenform acquired True Form in 1992, True Form had no distribution to chains and mass outlets." Greenblatt said that department store business now accounts for 65 to 70 percent of total True Form business. He further noted that business with mass outlets posted a 20 percent gain this past year. In addition to private label for mass outlets, True Form produces shapewear by Adonna, a brand created by J.C. Penney Co., and the Jaclyn Smith label for Kmart, he said.
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