ALL ABOUT OPTIONS: SOCKS, COLOR, THE WEB
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — Sport socks, foot coverings, a shot of color, a decent Web site and a long, cold winter might sound like a holiday wish-list, but they’re also key products and strategies legwear makers are counting on to build first-half sales.
Tired of talking about what’s wrong with the sheers business, manufacturers are focused on rejuvenating legwear sales with items instead of basics. Color alone, which shoppers have been warming up to in sportswear in recent months, is expected to help rev up business.
Foot coverings in different styles, such as fishnets and sport socks in sport-specific or fashion-oriented styles, are also must-haves for spring, manufacturers said.
“Newness is key to bringing consumers into the hosiery department. Retailers are willing to try anything that is different,” said Susan Williams, vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s hosiery at Jockey.
Ridgeview aims to take advantage of winter sales by assuring that mass stores are well-stocked with tights and heavyweight socks through the end of February, according to Barry Tartarkin, president of the company’s hosiery division. Unlike in previous years, retailers are trying “to capture more dollars” by not marking down merchandise, and making the transition into spring at the beginning of the year, as they usually do, he said. Department stores are trying to buy closer to need, Tartarkin said.
“Ideally, retailers want to sell a pair of socks today and replenish them tomorrow. That puts pressure on us to maintain inventories,” he said. “They want to carry as little merchandise as possible, and finding the right balance can be tricky.”
To get a better handle on shipping and production, Ridgeview has invested $3 million in upgrading its operating system, Tartarkin said. Last year, the company fell behind in first-quarter shipments due to fall reorders, he said.
Gary Wolkowitz, president and chief executive officer of Hot Sox, said he was banking on sport socks to build first-half sales.
“Most stores have seen extra-brisk selling with white goods, and that should continue into next season for singles and multipacks,” he said. “That is the season that the category is usually a dominant seller.” In the past three years, sales of sport socks have increased from 25 percent of total spring business to 60 percent, Wolkowitz said. Interest in athletic socks is one of the reasons spring sales are planned at least 20 percent higher, he said.
Hot Sox has hired Laura Murcek, a former Coach designer, as design director for women’s. Her work will be unveiled next year. She succeeds Susan Marchand, who left the company in October.
Paul Lavitt Mills, the maker of licensed Nicole Miller and Anne Klein socks, is counting on sport socks to help push spring sales ahead 10 percent, according to Arthur Lavitt, president and ceo. Stores are interested in fashionable sport socks, as well as cushioned and antimicrobial styles, he said.
“Stores are buying more athletic and casual and less sheers,” Lavitt said.
Anne Klein legwear, which was introduced by Paul Lavitt Mills this fall, will be a major factor in the company’s planned growth, he noted.
Easton International, the U.S. distributor of Falke legwear, pointed to athletic socks as a growth opportunity. Next year, Neiman Marcus plans to roll out Falke Ergonomics, sport-specific socks that are anatomically designed, in 26 of its stores, said Joel Saperstein, vice president of sales.
Planning for a 20 percent gain in spring sales compared with the same selling period last year, Easton expects foot coverings, nude-colored sheers, thigh-highs and legwear in luxurious fibers to be important, he added.
Karen Bell, president and chief executive officer of K. Bell, expects retailers to buy more colorful legwear instead of white items, which generally account for about 80 percent of the spring merchandise sold in department stores.
“There is a major emphasis on color for the first time in a long time. Consumers are ready for it, and accessories have already been showing it,” she said. “We’re seeing color in the middle market and the high-end market [for sportswear]. It’s been a long time coming.”
Blue, cornflower and sky blue are key for spring, Bell said. Interest in those shades has helped push spring orders 25 percent ahead of last year, she added.
Sport socks, including those with touches of fashion, and socks embellished with beads, rhinestones or ribbons will help spring business, Bell added.
As retailers continue to tighten their matrix, they need to be more in touch with who their customer is, what’s selling and their product mix, she said.
“That’s where they can set themselves apart from their competition,” she said.
Laurie Mallet, president and chief executive officer of EG Smith, said retailers are refocusing their spring assortments because they understand legwear can be a “more meaningful accessory.” Specialty stores, which have successfully implemented that strategy for several months, are expected to increase momentum, she said.
“The decline in the sheer hosiery business will bounce back in socks,” Mallet said. “Stores have to put their dollars somewhere.”
As part of its plan to increase spring sales by 35 percent and to communicate with retailers more regularly, EG Smith has hired sales reps in four new territories. Beginning next month, salespeople will be based in Southern California, Texas, Atlanta and the Rocky Mountains.
The company has changed its catalog to make it “friendlier” and more interactive, Mallet said. A comic strip, for example, that highlights new styles will be a regular feature in the book. EG Smith is considering using the catalog to sell single socks to replace lost ones, Mallet said.
On another front, next week the company will launch an e-commerce site that will have the whimsical aspects of the catalog, Mallet said.
Look From London aims to build sales by introducing new products. Printed T-shirts that coordinate with the brand’s tights and footless tights have been hits for spring with specialty stores, according to Tony Taylor, creative director.
Knowing that, “the challenge [for most legwear makers] is to come up with new products that consumers will gravitate toward rather than basic sheers or opaques.” Look From London aims to differentiate itself by offering fashion-forward items, he said.
Tights imprinted with flames, pinup girls, Asian letters, paisley patterns or Native American motifs are important spring styles, he said.
“It doesn’t matter who buys the product,” Taylor said. “It’s all about trying to accessorize.”
To build brand awareness and strengthen sales, Look From London plans to launch a Web site by February. The company expects its online store to appeal to customers, especially international ones, who have called looking for its products, Taylor said.