NEW YORK -- As in many other areas of fashion these days, legwear manufacturers are playing the exclusives game.
According to some vendors, the trend started about two years ago and has proven to be an effective strategy to help a store develop its own individual character and appeal.
In many ways, hosiery, more than many other categories, lends itself to development of exclusives, manufacturers say. It's a strategy that's particularly effective when giving consumers the opportunity to buy a popular designer label without spending a lot of money.
"As hosiery manufacturers, our job is easier," said Doug Bauer, vice president of sales at Giorgio Armani Calze Associates, the North American licensee for Armani legwear. "We're not reinventing the wheel. Hosiery is a low-ticket accessory that is easier to market than a high-fashion jacket."
Nevertheless, manufacturers pointed out, it still takes a major store to support an exclusive, because of the high minimum orders required. Howard Hyde, vice president of worldwide marketing at Pennaco Hosiery, noted, for example, that for an exclusive trouser sock, the minimum order is 150 dozen units, while for a pantyhose style it's 250 dozen.
Further, when a designer name is involved, the store needs to have an established association with that label.
"There is a true synergy that takes place between an exclusive designer product and an upscale store," said Debbie Hobbs, vice president of merchandising for Donna Karan Hosiery, a license held by Hanes Hosiery. "Most importantly, though, there has to be a reason for an exclusive to exist. For hosiery, the exclusive has to relate directly to the designer's ready-to-wear. Catalogs and related point-of-sale materials are crucial."
She noted that the company has developed special products for direct mailings for Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, starting about two years ago.
"Exclusivity is a definite strategy we plan to continue with. It is entrenched in our marketing focus," said Janet Gerwich, executive vice president of women's merchandising at Neiman Marcus. "Although the concept is one we've used for a while now, we are much more aggressive now about marketing exclusives."
This spring, Neiman's is putting out a catalog featuring Giorgio Armani ready-to-wear and accessories including a special rayon and Tactel nylon knee-high style of hosiery.Neiman's has also designed a special insert on Anne Klein's new spring collection scheduled to appear in the March issue of Vogue magazine, and it includes an exclusive hosiery style. Anne Klein Hosiery is produced by Pennaco under license.
Gerwich also noted that two Donna Karan direct mail catalogs sent out for fall and holiday and a fall Calvin Klein catalog received "a great response." Exclusive hosiery styles were included in each book. The Calvin Klein number was textured striped tights, and the Donna Karan style was a Mini Toner -- one of the designer's control items -- in a shimmer sheer.
At Hot Sox, which manufactures its own brand of socks as well as Ralph Lauren's licensed line of hosiery, exclusives have been in the company's repertoire for about two years, said president Gary Wolkowitz.
"The 'Only At Bloomingdale's' campaign was introduced by the store's chairman, Michael Gould, about two years ago, and we have been active with that program in both the Hot Sox and Lauren lines," said Wolkowitz. "The sales are excellent in those items, because the customer perceives them as unique."
This spring, three Ralph Lauren sock styles are being offered exclusively at Bloomingdale's in cotton and linen fabrications. In the Hot Sox line, five special styles were offered at Bloomingdale's last fall.
"Bloomingdale's has driven the idea of the exclusive home more than any other store because they've given the idea a special character through merchandising and marketing," said Wolkowitz. "It truly gives them an edge. While it is the only store we work with now in exclusives, we'd be open to the idea with other retailers."
Doug Bauer, at Armani Calze, concurred that the concept of exclusives is becoming more popular as a way to distinguish one store from another.
"In a suburban mall that is anchored by three different major department stores, one can find the major designer names in all of them," he said.
Bauer noted that the big stores "come in early before a market to look at the product selection and confirm which ones they want to carry exclusively."
Normally, exclusivity is offered on fashion styles, he said, because limiting a basic style to only one store puts the manufacturer at a disadvantage with the rest of its accounts. However, picking the right fashion style that customers will want is a key issue."The retailers are rolling the dice since they may die with the item, if it turns out to be a loser," said Bauer.
Too heavy a reliance on exclusives can be a pitfall for a manufacturer, he continued.
"I'd hate to see stores in-fighting over a designer's line, and designers don't want to lock themselves into one store," he said. "Furthermore, small specialty stores give me half of my business. If I shut them out from certain products, I'm hurting myself."
He also added this word of advice to the stores.
"Besides exclusives, there are a number of critical reasons why a customer may choose to shop in certain stores, including service, location, a continuous flow of goods, good upkeep and, of course, price."
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