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NEW YORK — Plagued by continuing woes, most legwear vendors are expecting to eke out only small gains in 2003.<br><br>The legwear category, which is estimated to have annual U.S. sales of about $3 billion, has been in a slump for several years...

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NEW YORK — Plagued by continuing woes, most legwear vendors are expecting to eke out only small gains in 2003.

The legwear category, which is estimated to have annual U.S. sales of about $3 billion, has been in a slump for several years due, in part, to casual dress codes and the popularity of open-toe shoes, which minimize the need for legwear, particularly sheers.

In addition, department and specialty stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s Herald Square and Lord & Taylor have increased their focus on soft accessories and moved their legwear departments from the well-trafficked main floor for additional real estate. Bergdorf Goodman is one of the latest stores to relocate its department, having recently moved legwear to the beauty department on its ground level, from its former home on the sixth floor.

Although fall and holiday selling has picked up with the drop in temperatures in recent weeks, a number of vendors said this season was one of the weakest in recent years and many are preparing themselves for lower open-to-buys and lean inventories at retail, as well as more price initiatives, to stimulate buying next year.

“Stores are trying to run with low inventories in every category,” said Molly Mott, vice president of sales at Kayser-Roth. “When [stores] starve the inventory, you run a good chance of not having what the customer wants. We have to be able to ship very quickly when they reorder, so [as a vendor] you have to have stock.”

To meet that demand, Kayser-Roth’s inventory levels were stepped up by one-third over the past two years.

Susan Spindell, women’s national sales manager at American Essentials, said: “Inventory has to be managed carefully in spring. We all need to do business smarter, earlier and be in stock with basics that will drive the business.”

That’s not to say firms aren’t putting their best foot forward heading into 2003. Many are plotting new and different ways to stimulate growth, such as Wolford’s plans to add bridal hosiery and a legwear debut by Wellman Inc., the fiber company.

Sock trends for the coming year are focused on athletic looks, as well as plenty of novelty, especially stripes and patterns. Tube socks, a surprise hit this fall, are expected to continue to be a strong trend heading into next fall.

Companies such as Royce Hosiery Mills and Levante said they are planning to add more products in luxury fabrics, such as wool, cashmere and angora. In hosiery, shaping and enhancement items have risen in importance.

“The hosiery business is a major challenge because department stores keep moving the space, even if the hosiery business is faring above last year,” said Maria Basquil, national sales manager at Wolford America. “The departments are shrinking and we are fighting for the same space. There is consolidation throughout every department store, which will continue through next year.”

A number of executives said legwear is increasingly driven by pricing strategies, fueled in part by lower-priced discount chains that have upgraded their offerings and the pervasive promotional activity in recent years.

Reflecting the importance of pricing, American Essentials is honing in on its multipack offerings next year. “The customers and retailers are asking for price compression, they want more product for fewer price points,” Spindell said.

For its licensed CK Calvin Klein sock collection, the firm has stepped up its offerings in the two-for-$10 price strategy and is also adding a two-for-$12 athletic sock program. In addition, it is improving its signage within stores to direct customers to the merchandise and is offering retailers “planograms” to help them with each fixture’s layout.

Howard Upchurch, president at Sara Lee Hosiery, said: “Our value multipacks continue to have strong over-the-counter performance and have contributed to significant improvement in total trends. Hanes is offering multipacks in Silk Reflections, Alive, Plus, Smooth Illusions and Absolutely Ultra Sheer.”

Among Sara Lee’s top-booked hosiery trends for spring are anticellulite and toeless products, which are available in its Hanes, L’eggs and licensed Donna Karan brands. Upchurch said he sees potential growth in the sheer category with the return of business attire in the workplace, although sales figures for the first nine months of the year showed a major decline in sales of suits, dresses and skirts, as reported.

Wolford is increasing its emphasis on partnering with retailers and individual departments to compensate for the loss of the impulse customer.

“We are looking for outposting in ready-to-wear and couture departments,” Basquil said. “We educate our customer from store level to management to give them the awareness that we’re there, catering to them.”

For spring, the company will continue its collaboration with Vivienne Westwood, which was launched for fall, with two new groups called Patchwork and Stitches. Also, Wolford is launching a bridal collection during the January market with distribution planned to existing Wolford retailers and bridal stores for May.

“They say the bride buys 177 items,” said Basquil. “The bridal business is a $120 billion business in total. Even if we capture a half a percent of that, it will be a big business for us.”

The line, which wholesales from $17.50 to $30, features approximately 10 legwear pieces, including ecru lace or shimmer tights and stockings, and stay-ups with a lace band. Basquil declined to give sales projections for the line.

In January, Wolford is opening a partnered boutique on Old Northern Boulevard in Roslyn, N.Y. “We are looking for an 8 percent increase next year, which will come from multibrand stores and boutique partners,” said Basquil.

Levante, the Italian hosiery and legwear firm that has been in this country for about three years, is stepping up its business in socks here, said John Flynn, U.S. president of sales. Socks now account for about 20 percent of business here, with tights and sheers making up about 80 percent. Flynn said next year he expects socks will grow to about 35 percent of overall sales.

Flynn said that even though business is difficult, he expects to notch double-digit sales next year, driven by increased brand awareness, wider distribution and new product categories, such as shapewear.

Other companies also aren’t deterred by legwear’s recent woes. Fiber maker Wellman, for instance, is expanding into the sock category. The new sock line will focus on high-performance fibers such as Sensura and Spunnaire, which can be atmospherically dyed for better color, fit, shape and moisture management.

For Wellman, diversifying into socks presented a natural progression in its fiber strategy.

“Today’s consumer wants performance from head to toe,” said Ray Shearin, Wellman’s business manager for new products. “For Wellman, that means creating fibers that provide the hosiery industry with new esthetic and performance properties to keep their customers comfortable and looking good.”

The first high-performance socks made with Sensura will be manufactured in a partnership with manufacturer Moretz Sports for spring delivery.

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