By  on May 7, 2007

Vendors are rekindling ties with lingerie specialty stores as the department store segment of the innerwear market consolidates.

Innerwear designers, also tiring of department store issues such as chargebacks and volume discounts, are refocusing some of their sales efforts on specialty retailers in a bid to recapture a piece of the business that once flowed through thousands of independent shops nationwide.

It's a move that is helping the stores in a variety of ways: Some vendors are offering more product exclusives, special treatment such as promotional perks and prices during a seasonal market, increased visits and interaction from vendors' sales staffs, and a more consistent communications effort. They're also offering advertising support and marketing collateral such as look books and graphics, as well as organizing trunk shows and coordinating sales associate training to familiarize store staff with new products.

"We're definitely experiencing more interaction with vendors and a growing level of support from them," said Rachel Clements, owner of La Mode Lingerie, a four-year-old Houston store. "It's a very smart move for the designers and vendors to target specialty stores."

La Mode Lingerie was recently expanded and refurbished at the tony River Oaks Shopping Center.

"Vendors are realizing there's a resurgence of women's specialty innerwear stores across the U.S. as customers seek out something unique and demand better personalized service that specialty stores can offer," Clements said. "Vendors are offering us some product exclusives, which helps to build brand loyalty among consumers, which in turns builds repeat business and higher sales. They are also realizing that as a store owner, I will invest more and spend more with their brand if they give me exclusives."

Clements said intimates designers were participating more in staging trunk shows, featuring gifts-with-purchase ideas, improving shipping methods and doing more co-op advertising.

La Mode Lingerie usually features co-op ads with vendors in Vogue, Allure, Lucky, Glamour and Architectural Digest to raise the profile of the store and the advertised brands.

"We're definitely seeing sales results in light of the added vendor attention," said Clements, noting sales are up by at least 50 percent compared with a year ago. "They've wisely realized that it's worth the time and investment to work with smaller stores."She cited brands such as La Perla, which generates about 30 percent of total store sales, and Aubade, one of her priciest lines, as best-selling labels.

Clements also has started carrying innerwear from Christian Lacroix, Dolce & Gabbana and Moschino, saying she expects strong consumer reaction because of the interest in fashion lingerie and novelty detailing, a hallmark of the designer lines.

Top Drawer Lingerie, a luxury innerwear store in Houston, said lingerie featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" gave vendors a wake-up call to pay more attention to specialty innerwear stores. Lingerie and the challenges, problems and rewards of finding proper-fitting undergarments were main topics, along with specialty stores that provide personalized service.

"Vendors are also realizing that women's specialty stores can get trends and new product to customers faster and are a good gauge of testing new products, as well," said Dow Hickam, co-owner of Top Drawer Lingerie, Houston. "The smart vendors are the ones who are realizing that you have to look at department and specialty stores as two totally distinct and disparate segments that have to be dealt with in unique ways, and that each offers unique attributes. Innerwear business at a smaller specialty store is always about the service, offering products with the best fit and being willing to spend the time to find the best fit for customers.

"Vendors are also realizing how critical it is to tap into the service component of the business, and are calling us, wanting to know the feedback we're getting from customers and what they think of a certain product,'' Hickam said. "They're also willing to do some co-op advertising."

Hickam said it was often expensive and price-prohibitive to do lavish photo shoots and ad campaigns for smaller specialty stores. Because of that, vendors are increasingly supplying sophisticated, high-resolution graphics that stores can use in local ad campaigns, direct mailers and promotional e-mail alerts, among other marketing venues.

Top Drawer Lingerie has been in business four years and Hickam said he was considering expanding beyond the store's 3,500-square-foot space on Uptown Park Boulevard, Houston, should space become available. Sales are at least 15 percent ahead of a year ago, he said, crediting customer service, brand varieties that focus on fit and comfort and best-selling labels such as Chantelle, Le Mystère, Wacoal, Panache and Prima Donna.Stacey Dorfman Kivowitz, owner of Sheers the Bodywear Bar, in Dallas, a 13-year-old innerwear store in the trendy Oak Lawn neighborhood, said, "We get a lot of attention from vendors and we love it. They're more willing to do more hand-holding and do special things for specialty stores than they have in the past. It's a wise move on their part that's paying off for us with higher sales."

Kivowitz said some vendors would even hand-deliver orders and spend extra time in the store explaining products to the sales staff and getting customer feedback on an item.

"Vendors also are realizing that [department] stores aren't going to market as frequently, so they are coming to us," she said. "Instead of going to market, many specialty stores are also ordering online from vendors. We've also noticed that designers' Web sites are becoming very sophisticated and at the same time very user-friendly. In the long run, it helps me because I can place orders and plan deliveries without having to leave my store, and in this highly competitive era, it's never been more important to be at the store on the sales floor and stay plugged into the business."

Kivowitz said she was also increasing her direct mail and e-mail campaigns with creative help from vendors, particularly in graphics. She said sales were ahead in the double-digit range. Best-selling brands include Pfiff sleepwear and bras that focus on fit in sizes that go to an F cup, as well as NiteSweatz, a new line of pajamas, gowns and pillow covers that wick moisture from the skin for menopausal women experiencing night sweats. Nundies disposable panty liners also are key items, she said.

"The topic of vendor and specialty store relations couldn't be any more timely," said Karen Fritts, owner of the two-unit Loretta's Intimates with stores in Plano and Flowermound, Tex. "I have definitely noticed more interest from manufacturers and sales representatives. We're getting more offers to co-op advertise with them, and they're calling me much more frequently to gauge sales and get feedback from consumers on their products. When we opened our second locale in November 2006 in Flowermound, we got lots of calls from vendors wanting to come to the new store and help with trunk shows, and help train sales associates with their lines."Fritts said sales were strong and on plan at her new 2,600-square-foot unit in Flowermound, as well as at her 2,700-square-foot unit in Plano, which opened in 1983.

Bestsellers include nude-tone T-shirt bras from Chantelle, Fantasie of England, Le Mystère, Selena, Underglam, Betsey Johnson Intimates and P.J. Salvage, said Fritts.

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