PARIS — Although denim sales have boomed in France during the last few years, defying an overall stagnant women’s clothing market, the average price paid for a pair of jeans has declined as cheap-chic retailers accumulated market share.

According to a recent study by France’s Institute Française de la Mode, fast-fashion chains — from homespun retailers Kookai and Morgan to Sweden’s Hennes & Mauritz and Zara of Spain — accounted for 41 percent of the total women’s jeans market in France in 2001.

For 2002, the most recent year for which data is available, the retailers increased their stake to 44.1 percent, selling some 8.7 billion pairs of women’s jeans.

Supermarkets, such as the Monoprix chain, and hypermarkets, including Carrefour and Leclerc, each of which typically sells their inexpensive in-house brands, increased their combined market share for 2002 to 19.6 percent versus 17.1 percent in 2001.

The news wasn’t as good for premium channels.

Independent retailers, which usually sell more expensive brands, saw their market share decline to 17.3 percent in 2002 from 20.7 percent in 2001. Department stores, also concentrated on more expensive products, declined to 3 percent of the total pie from a 3.2 percent share in 2001.

“It’s not surprising that the premium channels have declined,” said Helene Fourneau, who spearheaded the research. “Jeans have moved into the lower-priced channels because more people are wearing jeans. Now you can even find some special treatments in jeans in value channels.”

Accordingly, Fourneau said the average price of a pair of jeans in France declined by about 5 percent in the fall-winter 2002 season, to about $38.

Nonetheless, women spent more money on jeans in the same period. According to market tracking firm Secodip, the women’s jeans market grew 17 percent to $1.77 billion (1.54 billion euros) in 2002, with women spending on average 8 percent more on jeans in 2002, compared with 2000.

“Jeans have been the ultimate fashion accessory for the last few seasons,” Fourneau said. “But as chains such as H&M and Mango sell more jeans, they have driven the average price down.”The profusion of so-called fashion jeans has pushed the market in a new direction. Retailers said since less-expensive channels have replicated many of the styles offered by premium brands and flooded the market with them, customers have started to look for different styles.

“Now jeans are returning to a more natural look,” said Odile Morvan, fashion director at Paris’ Galeries Lafayette department store. “As soon as a style floods the market at every price point, the trend is on the way out.”

According to Fourneau, fashion retailers have driven growth in the French market, even if mass channels have gained market share.

“In America much of the market is driven by the mass channel,” Fourneau said. “But the fast-fashion chains have really led the market here. Women want fashion and they want it at a good price. So they go to the vertically integrated specialty stores. In France, the mass-channel concentrates on basic jeans. They aren’t the ones that have driven the market. Fashion has been behind the boom.”

Although H&M, which has blitzkrieged Europe by appropriating the prevalent trends and selling them inexpensively, declined to detail the percentage of growth of its jeans business during the last few seasons, a spokeswoman said the company was “very satisfied” by the growth, which had been “strong.”

“The jeans boom started in fall 2001,” said the spokeswoman. “It has steadily grown since and we think this development will continue. We have changed our orientation slightly. Before, we had denim in all parts of our collection, from skirts to blousons. Now, we are really concentrated on jeans.”

The spokeswoman said the average price of a pair of jeans at H&M for fall would run about $35.

Growing fast-fashion competition has gotten the attention of Europe’s largest jeans firms. Levi Strauss & Co., for example, is gearing up to launch a lower-priced teen line in Europe called Lady Levi’s. Marketed to girls 11 to 19 years old, it will retail cheaper, between $45 and $65, than the traditional Levi’s product, which has retailed above $65.

Levi’s is also poised to enter the value channel with its Levi Strauss Signature line, retailing for about $35. Signature, which is slated to roll out in the U.S. in Wal-Mart stores this summer, will hit Europe starting early next year.“The value channel represents 14 percent of denim consumption in Europe and Levi Strauss & Co. had not so far addressed this segment of the market,” said Kenny Wilson, president of Levi’s brand in Europe, the Mideast and Africa. “We believe that there is a strong opportunity for Levi’s to grow the channel even further by offering superior quality products to consumers who shop in the value channel or would eventually be tempted to shop there if they found products like Signature.”

Levi’s new product introductions come as the women’s jeans market has begun to cool.

“Over the last few seasons, our denim business has increased by more than 50 percent,” said Galeries Lafayette’s Morvan. “The trend is on its last legs now. Jeans are becoming much more basic. It’s going to be much slower now.”

Morvan said the average price for a pair of jeans at Galeries Lafayette, which sells brands from Diesel and Miss Sixty to Lee and CK, has dropped to about $60 to $70.

“Basic jeans are less expensive,” she said. “Women won’t buy them to go out in. They will buy them for the weekend.”

But jeans companies are aiming to exploit new avenues of growth.

Wilson said Levi’s research points to opportunities in three channels in Europe: independent retailers, vertically integrated specialty chains and the mass channel.

“The growth in the indies can be explained by the recent popularity of denim and the growing number of independents offering denim products,” he said. “On the other hand, the popularity of denim over the last several years explains the growth of the [specialty] and mass, which have introduced denim products into their lines.”

He continued, “After a couple years of solid growth, the European denim market has started to show signs of flattening out. We see a gradual change in the retail structure in Europe. The market is polarizing. The biggest growth comes from the under $30 and the above $60.”

This schism has given many of Europe’s more expensive brands a reason to believe they can sustain their growth of the last few years.“Zara, Mango and H&M have changed the market by providing wonderful products that are 50 to 70 percent less expensive than the other brands,” said Giorgio Presca, vice president of marketing and sales worldwide at Diesel. “We look to them with fear and admiration. But we’re never going to be able to compete with them. We have to stick to our own strategy.”

Presca said sales at Diesel had grown by more than 20 percent during the last few seasons. Now that the market is waning, he said the company would try to introduce more affordable products to its range, which typically retails between $80 and $250.

“We have to give more price options without moving into someone else’s territory,” he said. “We think that the integrated chains will continue to grow a lot. But we think that there is still room for innovative products at the premium level.”

At Lee Cooper, marketing director Sophie-Virginie Roger said although “price is always a big argument, consumers are still willing to pay for design and quality. We are not planning to lower our prices or introduce less-expensive products. It’s true that mass channels are growing, but that isn’t our customer. Our customer is interested in buying a brand.”

Claudio Buziol, president of Fashion Box Group, which produces Replay, E-Play and We-R-Replay, said the company is not lowering its prices.

“Replay is more niche rather than mass and our volumes are spread out on many different countries around the world,” said Buziol, whose firm had sales last year of $247 million (215 million euros) at the current exchange rate. “We have no intention to enter in competition with the lower market and we…continue to elaborate our designs and products.”

The company launched a new experimental line for spring-summer 2004 called We-R-Replay, priced between 30 and 50 percent higher than Replay. He said, “We don’t want to become retailers such as H&M or Zara and want to be available at more selective stores.”

Levi’s Wilson believes there remains room for premium products if they are innovative.

“Young consumers are expecting innovation from their favorite brands and are ready to pay more for products that are responding to their needs,” he said.Lee Cooper’s Roger added, “The mass channel and the fast-fashion firms may be gaining a lot of ground, but there are still opportunities for a premium brand.”

For instance, she said Lee Cooper has begun opening its own stores, called The Place — there are four to date — to enhance the brand’s image and cool factor.

“In this market it’s very important to have a strong image,” Roger said. “We believe opening shops will enhance our appeal among consumers.”

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