Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — With casual continuing to be the driving force in legwear at retail, manufacturers are playing up the category with new styles, price points and marketing strategies as they look to fall bookings.
Sock makers said they are particularly enthusiastic about business, since sales of sheers are showing no sign of rebounding.
Although the market officially runs March 3-7, some buyers began visiting showrooms last week and others will not review lines until the second week in March.
“The market seems to be getting longer and longer,” said Jill Greenwood duPont, president and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hosiery.
Unlike last year’s March event, this year, buyers booked showroom appointments early. Retailers are anxious to jump-start fall business after disappointing sales of sheers last fall, legwear executives said.
“The hottest thing in sheers is designer names — beyond that, the sheer business is trending down,” said Susan Williams-Pete, director of merchandising for the hosiery division at Jockey for Her. “Anyone who denies that is only deluding himself.”
To build on the casual trend, Jockey for Her is going into tights and trouser socks for the first time in several seasons. Retail prices of the items will range from $5 for trouser socks to $13.50 for tights.
“Stores all suffered a great loss at the end of ’96, due to the decline of the sheer business,” she said. “Consumers are demanding more heavyweight options. We’re trying to meet their needs.”
Jockey, however, is hardly giving up on pantyhose. For fall, it is introducing pantyhose shapers.
Berkshire Hosiery is introducing an 11-style group of medium-weight sheers, showing a casual influence in a variety of textures and patterns, called Berkshire Trend.
Berkshire Trend, which wholesales from $5 to $10, should be in at least 175 specialty store and department store doors, duPont said. First-year projected wholesale volume is $500,000, she said.
The introduction of a 20-piece group of socks should help push the company’s annual sales beyond the current growth rate of 20 percent, du Pont said.
“With the sheer business shrinking, a lot depends on how that will affect the casual market,” she added.
Hanes Hosiery is taking a different approach to the casual business.
“We’re in the business of adding options to meet consumers’ changing needs. They want to find more casual types of products,” said Olan Beam, vice president of marketing for Hanes Hosiery. “Opportunities have increased for socks and heavier denier products.”
To appeal to more professional women who are looking for casual products instead of sheers, Hanes will offer its expanded line for Silk Reflections trouser socks and opaques in the same area as its Silk Reflections sheers.
Trouser socks and tights are traditionally merchandised with socks.
For fall, Hanes has doubled its Silk Reflections opaques group. The eight-piece line wholesales from $3.50 to $4, with ribbed looks, suiting stripes and patterns expected to be important fall looks, Beam said.
Ridgeview Hosiery is also counting on its casual fashion looks to strengthen fall sales. Crocheted styles and men’s wear looks in tights and trouser socks should be “the thrust” for fall, said Lynn Sexton, design director for Ridgeview.
“This fall is going to be a lot more exciting. Color is selling,” she said. “The customer is not interested in basics anymore; she goes to department stores for novelty.”
For fall, the company has revamped its 43-style sock line to offer more novelty yarns like silk, wool and cashmere, instead of emphasizing basic combed cotton, Sexton said.
To meet retailers’ requests for sharper-priced products, Ralph Lauren Legwear, produced under license by The Hot Sox Co., is offering tights at $11, compared with last year’s opening price of $16.
The company decreased wholesale prices by changing its sourcing and offering new styles like sheer-to-waist tights, according to Jill Bleifer Fergus, national sales manager for Lauren Legwear.
Lauren changed its prices to be more competitive in the designer hosiery market, which is a driving force in the casual hosiery business, she said.
The company has also introduced its first collection of trouser socks. The 12-style group wholesales from $6.50 to $14.50.
“We decided to introduce the category, since pantsuits are being completely accepted by women for work,” Fergus said.
For fall, Ben Berger plans to focus on luxury fiber socks, which were bestsellers last fall, said Michael Berger, vice president.
To meet retailers’ demand for better quality goods, Ben Berger has upgraded its luxury offerings. Angora blend socks, for example, now consist of 40 percent angora, compared with 25 percent a year ago, Berger said.
“Many retailers are offsetting their promotions and basic business by using luxury goods as margin-building items,” he said.
Price — at wholesale and retail — continues to be an issue for stores, Berger said.
“Demands on the markup structure are increasing every year for accessories. That puts a lot of pressure on buyers and suppliers to meet the demands for markups,” he said.
“In the last four or five years, there’s been deflation of wholesale price points. What we used to sell for $3 a few years ago we’re now selling for $2.50.”
Berger attributed this pressure to retail consolidation. Stores have greater buying power and demand better service and pricing, he said.
On the brighter side, Berger noted that retailers are working aggressively to get their legwear programs together a few weeks earlier than last year.
“They want to bring in key items earlier that were bestsellers last year,” he said.