SWIMWEAR: SEARCHING FOR CALMER SEAS
Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio
NEW YORK — Bruised by the promotional frenzy at retail, swimwear makers are trying new strategies to pump up sales for spring.
These range from increasing their offerings of separates to capitalizing on the Olympics with Americana looks to stepping up consumer research.
Small vendors say they’re upset with the recent wave of consolidation in the swimwear market, which is leaving business in the hands of just a few big players, like Authentic Fitness Corp. and Beach Patrol Inc. Such an environment is making it hard for smaller firms to compete on price, observers say.
But there’s also good news. Due to the blizzard that blanketed the Northeast on Jan. 7, the cruise business has picked up. Such snowy conditions, swimwear vendors reasoned, sent consumers to the stores to pick up their cruise suits before they headed off for warmer climes.
Janet Wittenberg, an owner of 22-year-old On the Beach, reported a 20 percent increase in sales so far for cruise. But she admitted that the overall climate is getting tougher.
The firm, based here, markets a contemporary line called Sur La Plage and junior swimwear under the On the Beach label.
“I am working twice as hard,” said Wittenberg. “All of this consolidation is creating a commodities-oriented atmosphere.”
She noted that the firm, which posted a wholesale volume of $10 million last year, has been fortunate about keeping its department store business.
“We’ve been around for a long time, and so we have been able to establish loyalty with our department store customers,” she said. “But starting up a small swimwear firm now would be very difficult.” On the Beach is offering separates for the first time for the preview season, which begins in March, and is also pitching Americana looks, with these styles accounting for about 20 percent of its line, said Wittenberg.
On the Beach has also stepped up its market research, sending its sales staff to stores’ selling floors to talk with sales staff and consumers.
“We are becoming less design-driven and more driven by what our customers want,” Wittenberg said.
“The swimwear market is getting more difficult,” said Jacques de Waele, general manager at California Waves, a Los Angeles firm that markets a contemporary line called Endless Sun and a junior line called California Waves. “The regular-price swimwear season is definitely getting shorter.”
To increase sales, the company, which started offering separates about four years ago, is now offering all separates, starting this year.
“This is definitely a growth opportunity, though this category is more difficult to manage because there are twice as many units,” said de Waele. “We have been successful at it, however.”
The average price for a top and bottom combined is about $24, while Endless Sun wholesales for around $30.
The company posted sales of $5 million last year, a 30 percent increase over the prior year, de Waele said.
De Waele credits its strong business to the company’s focus on specialty stores instead of department stores. About 70 percent of its accounts are specialty stores, he said.
Ritchie Swimwear, a Miami company, reported a strong cruise season so far.
“It started out weak, but over the past few weeks, the business at retail has really picked up,” said Joseph Berger, president. “Stores in resort areas have called us to order our suits because of the increased demand. I think by the time we are through this season, our sales should be up.”
Ritchie Swimwear has also joined the ranks of companies that are selling separates-only collections. It is shipping its first all-separates line for spring.
It is also capitalizing on the Olympics and is showing stars-and-stripes motifs for spring.
The spring line also offers such colors as hot pink and pastels with gold buckles and buttons.