MONTREAL — Canada’s largest independent lingerie company is testing the U.S. market with a unit in a New Jersey mall and four more stores scheduled to open within the next few weeks.

The La Senza store at the Rockaway Mall in New Jersey opened June 7 and is being closely monitored by headquarters here, according to La Senza Corp. executive vice president Laurence Lewin, who said Rockaway was selected as a test site because it is a typical northeastern mall.

“You can’t start a new business in central Manhattan until you know your market. Our business plan will not kick in until we are totally satisfied with the performance of these stores.”

In addition to Rockaway, stores will open at Roosevelt Field in Garden City, N.Y., and Northshore Mall, Burlington Mall and South Shore Plaza, all in the Boston area.

The company operates 210 La Senza stores in Canada, 73 La Senza Girl outlets and 34 Anne-X women’s better sportswear stores. It also operates stores in 12 other countries under corporate license and has a 10 percent interest in junior fashion retailer Wet Seal Inc. of Foothill Ranch, Calif.

The company is finishing the sale of its money-losing 178-store Suzy Shier women’s wear chain to YM Inc. (Sales) Group here. It said the sector has been hit hard by large stores in power centers.

Being next door to the largest retail market in the world seemed a natural choice to expand first instead of overseas. So why are U.S. stores only being opened now?

“It would seem like an obvious choice, but it is a much different and much bigger market than Canada,” Lewin said. “And we were not prepared to tackle it until we had total control here and the supply chain under firm management.”

If the American stores take off, Lewin noted there are between 600 and 1,200 regional malls in the U.S. that would be ideally suited for a La Senza outlet.

The company initially plans only to open U.S. La Senza stores that will average 5,000 square feet compared with 3,500 square feet in Canada. And like Canada, the stores will primarily be located in malls.La Senza also will continue to expand in Canada. It already operates four large-surface outlets in Ontario and will soon open a 15,000-square-foot La Senza/La Senza Girl store here. Lewin said the Canadian market can sustain another 16 to 18 large-surface outlets.

The company had sales of $220 million, converted from Canadian dollars at current exchange, last year and has an estimated 25 percent share of the domestic 15- to 29-year-old bra market but only 9 percent of the total market. As a result, it is doubling inventory and expanding its product lines in terms of style, fabrics and sizes in an effort to capture a larger share of the older market.

La Senza means “nothing” or “without” in Italian and the name was chosen to be innocuous in English-speaking and French-speaking Canada, explained Lewin. The company’s products are manufactured around the world, including Canada, and cater to mid-America in terms of fashion and affordability.

“Our products are inspired by European styling in terms of fashion, color and style. We have designers all over the world and what works in Montreal works just as well in Morocco, and our initial experience in the U.S. is showing the same thing.”

And what works is a sexy product.

“We’re selling lingerie and the trend in the last year or so for women is to wear sexier merchandise strong on cottons and natural fibers,” Lewin added.

That trend has been pushed by Victoria’s Secret, La Senza’s main competition in the U.S., according to Cristina Costantini, vice president of U.S. operations.

“We’re selling a very similar product, but our customers like our European influence and have reacted positively to our colors of pinks and reds and to the prints on our sleepwear. Customers have also reacted well to our bright and colorful store environment and we’ve already seen repeat traffic.”

Standard promotions include two seamless microfiber bras for $44, luxury lift bras for $36 and sets of five panties for $19.50.

Because the company is starting small in the U.S., advertising and marketing will be local, including in-store handouts on the company and its products.Many Canadian retailers have tried and failed to crack the U.S. market, but analyst Cynthia Rose-Martel of Jennings Capital in Toronto feels La Senza should be successful.

“They’re familiar with the U.S. market through their stake in Wet Seal,” she said. “The lingerie market is pretty fragmented. They’ve also been very successful at taking market share away from department stores.”

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