SIT-DOWN WITH SASSON: DOING MASS WITH CLASS

Byline: Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK--When the better-priced denim firm Sasson moved from department stores into mass stores in 1988, some thought it would the death of the company. But in the seven years since that move, made as part of a strategy to get out of bankruptcy, the brand has rebuilt itself to a business that hit $350 million in 1993--with a projected $375 million this year. It sells almost every mass marketer but Wal-Mart.
Now Sasson is out to expand its global reach. Already well established in Asia, the company has signed licenses for Canada and Mexico and is "looking into Europe," according to Stephen Wayne, chief executive officer, and Linda Elton, president of the company.
In September, Sasson created a new post for Andrea Levitt, who had been vice president of women's merchandising at the competing brand Bonjour. As executive vice president of merchandising, Levitt will be in charge of Sasson's expansion to still more licenses, while maintaining the overall look of the brand.
"Globally, we have a very successful business. Our business in Japan is worth about $60 million," Wayne said. "Now, we are working to develop Korea. We also have 50 in-store shops in Taiwan, China, Thailand and India. We have a brand-new venture in Canada, where we signed a master license with Fame Jeans, Inc. It will be the same thing we're doing in the States, targeted to the mass customer. And we're looking into Europe."
According to Elton and Wayne, the recipe for Sasson's quick rise was part advertising, part product and a healthy ration of personal relationships.
When the company went bankrupt in 1988, Wayne said, it was worth about $40 million. It was purchased by Trust Company of the West, an investment firm.
"The obvious direction was to make it available to discounters," Wayne said. "At that time, Gitano was really the only brand marketing to the discounters, and that was basically a Wal-Mart brand. We came back as an alternative for the regional resources, and the timing was really fortuitous. Our marketing was to offer a department store brand to mass marketers. It was the first time the mass market had a choice. Now, we have over 40 licensees."
Sasson has licenses in categories from women's jeans and apparel to children's accessories. The company's most recent signing included two knitwear tops licenses.
Part of Sasson's smart marketing is to make the retailer's name as important as the brand, Elton explained. "We tag our retailers in our print and TV campaigns," she said. "Why not give them credit? It also drives customers into stores. We sit down with the president and divisional of each store a few times a year to figure out what we are going to do to support them. For example, if they are doing a circular, we will buy TV in that market to support that circular. We do print ads, point-of-sales, we spend three days of a five-day shoot shooting point-of-purchase visuals for each individual retailer. There's really not a lot of difference between how we treat them and how we would treat a better department store account."
Elton also noted that Sasson gets involved in sports and music marketing. Last summer, it was a major sponsor of the Jones Beach concerts here and had a multimedia advertising campaign with the New York Yankees. Coming up are similar advertising and marketing programs with the Detroit Tigers.
"But there's more potential in the discount stores," Wayne said."I think a lot of management in the mass market today is from the department stores, and we're finding in the last two years that they want more fashion.They have their private-label programs in place, so they're getting more interested in brands."
"We both want what's best for the customer, we both want labels, we both are interested in fashion, and we both are price-driven," Elton said. "We track every license by retailer. Before we sign a license, we go to the retailers and ask if they have that category, or if they need us in that category."
"All of this has been funded by Trust Company of the West," Elton added. "They've overspent every year, by plowing dollars back into the business."

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