By  on December 19, 1994

NEW YORK -- Socks and tights, which were top performers throughout the fall, continue to hold on to their star status in the holiday season.

While legwear is traditionally seen as a last-minute gift purchase because of its low price points, the category attracted early Christmas shoppers as well, stores said. Sheers, which have been seeing a revival of sorts this fall, are also doing well for some stores but are still on the slow side for others.

A spot check with retailers in all price points revealed the holiday shopping blitz is not governed solely by price or color.

While better-priced collections such as Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani Calze, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren are fueling business at Saks Fifth Avenue and other top specialty stores, unbranded multi-packs for unbranded crew socks are revving up sales at Dollar General as well as at other mass marketers.

Several stores said they should see double-digit percentage gains for casual legwear.

Macy's West is planning for "a very high" double-digit percentage increase for socks and tights, more than making up for still-lagging sheer sales, according to Richard Zappala, buyer for the 50-unit operation. "Every vendor is virtually on fire," he said, as he talked about some brands doubling their Christmas figures of a year ago.

With retail prices for tights ranging from $9 to $15, DKNY, Hue, CK by Calvin Klein and Ellen Tracy are some of the leading vendors, he said. Basic black or cable tights are the hottest items, he said.

"Tights accelerated at the end of October and we've been trying to catch up ever since. We missed a lot of business in November because we couldn't get tights back in stock," Zappala said. "We see a major opportunity in tights for next year."

Over-the-knee socks by Hot Sox at $9, private label trouser socks by Charter Club at $3.75 and angora blend socks by Kenneth Cole at $10 have also generated sales, Zappala said.

Giorgio Armani Calze, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren have triggered rapid sales, he said.

At Henri Bendel, holiday legwear sales are 24 percent ahead of last year, according to Robert Goldfarb, divisional merchandise manager.The company's private label hosiery, which retails from $6.50 for knee-highs to $8 for opaques, has bolstered sales. Having scaled back on its range of Wolford products to keep more bestsellers in stock, the line's sales at Bendel's have doubled from last year, he said. Wolford accounts for nearly 30 percent of the company's overall volume, Goldfarb said. Wolford's "velvet deluxe" pantyhose at $36, sheer pantyhose at $40 and fishnets at $40 are bestsellers.

Sales of thigh-highs and tights by Hue, Hot Sox and Gamine have more than doubled compared to last year, said Goldfarb, adding the classification -- thigh-highs and tights together -- now generates about 18 percent of the overall business.

Goldfarb pointed out that the surge in legwear action reflects much more than gift-buying at Bendel's.

"Women are into buying legwear again. It's a fashion issue. Customers are responding to novelty looks and they're buying sheers again," he said.

Having sold 250,000 pairs of unbranded holiday socks in less than six weeks, Dollar General, a 2,000-unit chain based in Nashville, is planning for a 28 percent increase in legwear compared to last year, according to Gayla Warner, hosiery, accessories and sleepwear buyer. Available in eight different Christmas motifs, anklets that retailed for $1 were the hottest commodity in the hosiery department, she noted.

Dollar General focused on socks for holiday since sales for sheers have been flat, Warner said.

"Socks have been our focus," Warner said. "We serve the working class customer who dresses more casually."

Eight-pair packs of unbranded turn-cuff socks at $5, two-pair packs of unbranded cotton socks with non-skid soles at $3 and four-pair packs of unbranded bobby socks at $3 have been bestsellers, she said.

Socks and tights have been trending up "tremendously" at Saks Fifth Avenue, according to Gail Pisano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager. The company expects to see significant double-digit percentage increases for hosiery, she added.

With retail prices ranging from $20 to $30, over-the-knee socks and thigh-highs by DKNY and Ralph Lauren have been popular items. "For a while, we thought the over-the-knee trend would peak but instead it got stronger going into fourth quarter," Pisano said. "The whole casual classification is strong."Fishnets are another strong performer, pulling reorders during the holiday season, she noted. A top-price item, Wolford's fishnet stockings at $40, have been good, as well as lower-priced numbers. Also clicking have been Saks' private label cashmere socks at $25, she said. Double-digit percentage gains are forecast for socks at J.C. Penney Co., where private label trouser socks, over-the-knee socks and thigh-highs are leading looks according to Dotty Rainey, brand development manager for women's hosiery. With prices ranging from $3 to $6, fashion items have been very strong all fall, she said.

The emergence of layered legwear has enhanced sales, she said.

Sheer pantyhose should see a low single-digit percentage increase, with Hanes Silk Reflections and Evan-Picone the bestselling brands for sheers, Rainey said. At Venture Stores Corp., private label Christmas novelty anklets at $3, boot socks at $4, trouser socks at $2 and thigh-highs at $4 have been strong performers, according to Gregory Blow, director of fashion merchandising and product development.

"Customers are really responding to the thigh-highs and over-the-knee looks," he said. "Sheer business is still tough, but the rest of the business is very good."

Tights, boot socks, argyle socks and slippers in suede or velour are bestsellers at Federated Department Stores, according to Kathy Mays, senior vice president.

Novelty items such as socks that can be put into a microwave to be warmed up have been a disappointment, she said.

"We had counted on the whole thermal comfort category as a big chunk of Christmas [legwear], but it hasn't produced," she said.

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