HOSIERY MAKERS TAKING ON RETAIL RESPONSIBILITIES

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — While there are few categories where brands are so dominant, hosiery still suffers from a lack of attention from retailers.
Hosiery thrives on brand loyalty, since the product is replaced more frequently than any other apparel item. However, as a low-ticket item, hosiery rarely gets the retailers’ focus like categories such as designer sportswear and ready-to-wear that require more customer service.
Add to that the continuing cutbacks of store personnel and legwear manufacturers say category management takes on greater importance.
Retail consolidation has forced some major stores to tap one buyer to be responsible for the entire chain’s legwear business, often leading to vendors assuming the responsibilities of tracking and controlling the product at retail. This double duty has come about in part because of the reduced number of sales associates and a high rate of employee turnover at stores.
With 11 labels, including its licensed Donna Karan and DKNY lines, Hanes Hosiery is by far the dominant brand in most department stores and specialty stores. Several of Hanes’s competitors said the company has been successful in maintaining prime real estate in department stores and specialty stores by continually introducing new products under the Hanes label.
As the industry’s leader, Hanes’s chief responsibility is to expand the category within stores in terms of floor space and sales, said Anne Jardine, vice president of marketing.
In addition, the company aims to assure that its floor space is being used productively by regularly reviewing sales, price points and retail recommendations. “It is vital to create the right atmosphere — but not necessarily the most profitable per linear foot,” Jardine said. “The question is, ‘Have I created an environment a woman really wants to shop in?”‘
One benefit Hanes has gotten through its product management strategies has been the development of niche products such as large-size hosiery and more durable sheer pantyhose. “By being innovative, we’re keeping retailers and consumers more engaged in the category,” Jardine said. “Service is also one of the biggest things we can provide a retailer.”
Vendors also find that women want more information about hosiery in order to expedite their buying decisions.
In the last year, Gold Toe has increased its merchandising coordinators by 7 percent to service key markets, since some department stores have decreased their sales forces, according to Michelle Cannon, vice president of sales for women’s and boys’ for Great American Knitting Mills. Additional merchandisers will be added in the next year, she said.
“Our merchandisers listen to customer feedback and sales associates’ requests for merchandise and filter that information back to the stores’ buying office,” she said. “Sales reports are filed regularly to address issues and opportunities.”
The company has maintained a strong presence in major department stores by having strong sell-through and continual offerings for fashion items, Cannon said.
Gold Toe is also working to improve its in-store presentation by revamping packaging, increasing advertising and updating point-of-purchase displays, including non-sale items. Gold Toe employees meet with buyers to develop merchandising appropriate to each store, she added.
Mark Heirbaum, president of DML Marketing, which produces the Legale and Kenneth Cole lines, said that for the first time in 20 years, it is not unheard of for one buyer to be responsible for as many as 80 units, even though “one human being will never see all the branches.”
Using a vendor’s own merchandisers is the only way to assure items are displayed properly, he said. “If you’re going to be a presence in these stores, you have to make sure the product is attractive to consumers,” Heirbaum said.
Stores are looking for brands that are widely recognized among consumers, said Gary Wolkowitz, president and director of design of The Hot Sox Co.
“Without a doubt, at the upper tier, where we trade, the matrix of vendors is narrowing down, and the survivors are going to be designer brands and nationally recognized,” he said. “Unless you offer uniqueness and direction coupled with value and service, you’re just not a player.”
In 26 years Hot Sox has developed “partnerships and alliances with retailers via a good history of selling, customer service and consumer advertising,” he said, adding that as a result, its licensed Ralph Lauren hosiery was more readily accepted by retailers than it might have been if a lesser-known manufacturer introduced it. In an effort to reach more women between the ages of 20 and 30, Hot Sox recently began advertising in Swing magazine. Most stores react well when manufacturers take initiatives like advertising to support their brand, Wolkowitz said.
“We support our commitment to stores with national advertising,” Wolkowitz said. “Retailers want to do more significant business with fewer vendors.”

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