NEW YORK — Consumers are giving the cold shoulder to sexy lingerie this year, a segment of the intimates business that traditionally posts stellar sales during the Christmas selling season.

In a nationwide survey of major department and specialty stores and smaller specialty operations, retailers generally said items such as sheer baby dolls with G-strings; cleavage-enhancing lace bras and coordinating panties and transparent slips were being pushed out as the gift of choice for wives and girlfriends.

Instead, the most important factors driving gift-giving business in lingerie departments were comfort, function and quality.

Retailers said they believed the turnaround from sizzling "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" items to modest "Little House on the Prairie" merchandise is the negative impact of an uncertain economy, rising unemployment, distrust of the financial community and a potential war with Iraq.

Thus, a majority of best-selling gift-giving items reflect a consumer demand for feel-good merchandise that rekindles pleasant memories and instills a sense of well-being and security on the home front. Top-selling items include styles that are soft and cuddly, whether it’s a plush-feeling terry robe or shower wrap, softly brushed pajamas, classic nightgowns or capricious bedroom accessories like slippers and slipper socks with whimsical animal motifs.

Key fabrics are cotton knits, fluffy flannels, brushed-back satins and soft microfibers such as Lycra spandex and Tactel, Lycra Soft and Modal.

Retailers said there was no middle ground when it came to price. Either consumers were buying several pairs of fashion panties as stocking stuffers or as an inexpensive gift, or going for an expensive designer robe, bustier or nightgown. The common denominator, though, is consumers are buying fewer items, focusing primarily on a gift that is special or unique.

Bob Pawlak, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel, coats and fur at Milwaukee-based Carson Pirie Scott, said: "Our sexy stuff is not as good as we had anticipated. What’s selling is what we call giftables — cheap pajamas in a bag and terry velour robes with a gift ribbon that have a sumptuous look folded on a table. The folding on a table suggests it’s a gift."

He did concede, though, that there’s been no decline in demand for sexy-looking allover-lace panties, saying, "low-rise styles are the biggest thing we have going."Pawlak said a brand of soft thermalwear, called Cuddl’Duds, which consumers typically buy for themselves, is being purchased as gift items this season. Another key brand is Miss Elaine, a traditional sleepwear label, he said.

"Anything that’s very soft to the touch is selling," Pawlak said. "Flannel is being footballed very heavily and all of the competition is promoting it very heavily. We take business day to day, promote it more than we care to, in some cases more, and in some cases, less."

Donna Wolff, vice president and dmm of intimate apparel and hosiery at Bloomingdale’s, said several ideas bearing the Bloomingdale’s brand have been successful, including a pack of three panties with Bloomingdale’s logos, retailing for $15, and a pack of seven panties by Paul Frank for $36.

"Thongs across the board have been phenomenal for us, selling from $8 to $25," said Wolff, noting that cami and thong sets by On Gossamer have been strong.

She noted that pajamas by Nick & Nora, Calvin Klein and DKNY have been "terrific."

One novelty item in particular, slipper socks, has been a hit at Bloomingdale’s.

"We sold 8,700 units in one week," Wolff said. "It’s a great, inexpensive pickup item, from $14.50 to $16.50, with whimsical [appliquéd] animals that squeak when you squeeze them. And they’re not being bought as gifts for children. The post popular item is the monkey sock."

Anne Caetano, dmm of intimate apparel and hosiery at Saks Fifth Avenue, said: "Our bestsellers are very special pieces — items that are different and have a lot of drama." Top-selling items include bustiers, chemises and bodysuits and darker colors that lend a more "seductive appeal."

"I believe special items are selling for two reasons: People are not parting with their money as easily as they have in the past and are buying items that are extra-special looking and beautiful," Caetano said. "There’s also so much mass of sameness of merchandise that people are looking for interesting things. Everybody right now wants something unique and beautiful."All of these items are impulse purchases, not something a customer needs, but something that stops them in their tracks. Once they see the pieces on, they are much more beautiful than their expectations and they have to buy them."

She added that a number of Saks’ customers are pampering themselves more than they usually do and are buying gift-type items for themselves. Key brands include Natori, Josie, La Perla, Aubade, Chantal Thomass, Le Mystere, Flora Nikrooz, Jonquil and Lise Charmel, she said.

"Some of my customers are being very careful, while others are throwing caution to the wind," said Barbara Cook, owner of Joovay, a Manhattan-based lingerie boutique. "I think this year everybody has a different set of circumstances. New York has a lot of pockets of financial influence that have been affected over the past year, whether it’s the tech industry or Wall Street. Some people have lost their jobs and others still have jobs."

Cook said best-selling brands include contemporary, updated looks by Underglam, Lola and Leigh Bantivoglo, as well as luxe items like silk robes and sleepwear by Christina of Vancouver, French-lace bras and panties by Khwranna, and micro-Modal knit camis and panties by Ilux. On the at-homewear front, Loungerie is a key resource, she said.

A big hit has been one-of-a-kind vintage silk Huori jackets from Japan, each of which retails for $200, she said.

Mickey Lehman, owner of Lubbock, Tex.-based lingerie shop Intimate Apparel, said: "Sexy is just not selling. It used to be the pretty lace bra, thong and garters. Now, anything practical is selling, and any novelty goods, at a price. Bras and panties by Lise Charmel aren’t moving as quickly as a year ago, because nobody wants to spend $160 on a bra right now.

"But, a T-shirt bra by Chantelle for $62 sells day in and day out. I’m seeing husbands buying either three or four panties for their wives at $10 a pair or going all the way up to $350 for a bright pink brushed-back satin robe by Fernando Sanchez. There’s no middle-of-the-road purchases."

Lehman added that two items have been strong: thongs by Cosabella packaged in a mini envelope in a rainbow of colors, which are displayed next to the cash register and a control brief by Body Magic Products, which is packaged in a soup can-like container and retails for $39. The Cosabella thongs retail for $15 each.Meanwhile, Pam Williams, owner of Night Gallery, a lingerie boutique in Chapel Hill, N.C., said: "It’s all about practical right now, but feel-good practical. People’s priorities have clearly changed over the past year. If they want sexy fare, they go to Victoria’s Secret mainly because it’s for one-nighters and it’s inexpensive.

"But at my shop, novelty flannel pajamas by Nick & Nora and silk pajamas are totally happening. Cotton knit or washed rayon pajamas by Loungerie are blowing out of here at $125 a pair. Price is not the issue because of the quality and how the looks span all ages. You can go to the door and pick up a pizza or flop in bed in them."

She noted that a number of men have been buying more expensive sleepwear, particularly a brand called Pluto of Belgium, which she described as "very conservative, certainly not sexy."

"It’s all about the workmanship and the quality, and they’ll spend $145 for a fleece robe, up to $350 for a chenille robe," said Williams.

Despite the trend toward conservative modesty, Ani Weimann, manager of Allure, an intimate apparel shop in Santa Fe, N.M., said sexiness is generating lively holiday sales.

"Actually, it’s really weird," Weimann said. "We couldn’t give away sexy items last year. But this year, that’s all men in Santa Fe want. We can’t even sell pajamas here and it’s really cold."

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