MILAN — Not far from Milan’s designer-dominated Via Monte Napoleone is a street where average Italians shop.

There’s not a Gucci or a Prada to be found on Corso Buenos Aires. It’s a 3/4-mile stretch of road crammed with bookstores, sporting goods and department stores and apparel specialty shops. On Fridays and Saturdays, shoppers flock to the street to hunt for fashion at sharp prices.

The moderate-priced apparel market in Italy is diversified and split between traditional family-run stores, department stores and other clothing chains. Research analysts at Coin Group reported that these traditional stores account for 50 percent of the Italian clothing market.

Key players in the widely diversified segment include Coin Group, with more than a 2 percent market share, Benetton with a 2.3 percent share and department store Rinascente at 0.9 percent.

The rest of the medium-priced market is made up of chain stores including Promod, Motivi, Orsay and Celio. These stores offer medium-priced clothes and accessories for men and women and share the market with small traditional shops. All of these retailers face competition from Spanish chain Zara following the opening of three stores in Italy in 2002.

A representative from Coin Group said since its target customer is a woman aged 30 to 45, competition from more fashionable chains like Zara was lessened.

"We can say that the main Coin competitors are the small, traditional shops," the representative said. "The Spanish chain Zara operates with a younger customer product. Therefore, in this product area, there is slight overlapping but it is very modest."

A spokesman for Benetton said, "We are a mass market brand, but we don’t compete on price but on quality. Competition is tough in every world market and yes, for sure, Zara is our competitor in the European market. But we are in 120 countries, so there are a lot of competitors."

The race to gain more market share is becoming increasingly important for Zara. The corporate communications department for Inditex, which owns Zara, said there are six stores set to open in Italy in 2003. The first store in Italy opened last year, a 32,290-square-foot store on Corso Vittorio Emanuele."Our customers everywhere are very fashion orientated — they come to our store looking for fashion," said a spokesman for Inditex.

Through the third quarter, Inditex, fueled by Zara, saw net income balloon 31 percent to $276.8 million, as reported. Group sales in the period rose 25.8 percent to $2.77 billion.

Rapid store expansion represents much of this growth. Zara, with more than 500 doors in more than 30 countries, inaugurated 58 stores in 2001 and another 49 in 2002. Overall, Inditex is expected to open about 280 stores this year. The group, which operates five branded concepts apart from Zara, counts more than 1,300 stores in 41 countries.

Fashion-conscious Italians are taking to the quick trend turnaround Zara provides.

Katarina Nardino, 24, said she shopped in Corso Buenos Aires less since Zara opened its doors.

"I’m with my boyfriend’s mother, because she wanted to come to Corso Buenos Aires," Nardino said. "I don’t really like coming here anymore — it’s too overcrowded.

"Today I bought some pants for $21.54 in Motivi. It’s difficult to find what I want here. I don’t make enough money to shop in designer shops and in cheaper shops the clothes…look cheap. Promod isn’t as fashionable as Zara. I mainly buy clothes from Zara now."

Others look for trends in smaller traditional shops. Nestled on a side street off Corso Buenos Aires, small boutique Dàdò benefits from shopper traffic. Owner Grazia Inverizzi said her clients were habitual shoppers and usually compared prices at other stores before purchasing.

"Shoppers like diversity," Inverizzi said. "They are searching for trendy clothes they cannot find in Benetton."

Inverizzi said a printed cotton miniskirt priced at $43 was a top seller.

Situated on the next block, Benetton’s spring-summer collection featured a viscose skirt for $63.55. Cheaper items were cotton pullovers with laced V-necks at $26.93.

In Promod, simple black suits made of polyester and cotton were priced under $107.10 and shirts made of polyester and elastan were priced at $18.20.

The Benetton spokesman said the firm has forecast a 5 percent decrease in worldwide turnover in 2002.Benetton’s net profit for the six months ended June 30 rose 10.6 percent to $58.5 million, as reported. First-half revenue fell 4 percent to $982.5 million from $1.02 billion the year before. Dollar figures have been converted from the euro at current exchange rates.

"Customers are getting more and more sophisticated and you have to seduce them as they are not faithful. This is why we invested $807.83 million in the last three-and-a-half years into new shops, to give more of a good, quality product at the right price."

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