Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Capitalizing on multiple channels of distribution is nothing new for legwear manufacturers.
Despite the declining share of the hosiery market held by department and major specialty stores, manufacturers are adamant about keeping their prestige brands reserved for these types of retailers. But at the same time, they are busy covering all bases with a variety of programs; the two industry leaders — Sara Lee Hosiery and Kayser-Roth Corp. — are masters of the art.
With its widely distributed Hanes Hosiery and L’Eggs pantyhose, Sara Lee has the leading share of the $2.7 billion domestic sheer hosiery market, according to the company’s 1994 annual report. Hanes has a 60 percent dollar share of department and specialty store business. It also goes upscale with its designer lines — licensed Liz Claiborne sheers and Donna Karan and DKNY legwear.
L’Eggs has a 56 percent dollar share of the food, drug and mass merchandise market, according to Sara Lee. In building its business for this segment of the market, the firm develops lower-priced versions of ideas that worked well for department stores. The Smooth Silhouettes line — featuring a control leg — introduced late last year by L’Eggs is reminiscent of the Smooth Illusions by Hanes, one of Hanes’s top sellers.
Moreover, Sara Lee Direct, a division of Sara Lee, has been selling irregular hosiery products through Prodigy, an on-line shopping service, for the past three years. Hanes Silk Reflections, Hanes Smooth Illusions, Hanes Alive, Hanes Too, L’Eggs and Just My Size are among the Sara Lee brands offered with 30 to 60 percent discounts through Prodigy.
Sara Lee hosiery is one of the top five selling products of all the products offered on Prodigy, according to a spokeswoman for the on-line shopping service.
The company also reaches customers through its direct mail catalogs, which feature irregular merchandise as well.
The worldwide overproduction of sheer hosiery in the past few years proved to be a headache for Sara Lee, as it was for others, and last year the firm announced an extensive restructuring program, but still was determined to push ahead, focusing on what it described as value-added products and the growing strength in casual legwear.
Kayser-Roth Corp., the world’s second largest legwear manufacturer, also has a product lineup that ranges from drugstores to better specialty stores.
The company develops and distributes its mass market brand of No Nonsense legwear, as well as its licensed Calvin Klein, Hue, Burlington and Easy Spirit products.
At this time, Kayser-Roth has no plans to sell any of its legwear brands or licensed labels through home shopping or on-line services, according to Pat McNellis, national sales director for the department and specialty division. However, the company would consider developing private label products for those media, she said.
“We’re not threatened by consumers who buy staples at a drugstore or a department store,” she said. “Most of our competitors are not in drugstores.”
Mail order catalogs do not pose a threat either, she said.
“Most of the hosiery products are meant to accessorize the apparel in that catalog,” she said.
Still, some legwear resources are encouraged that retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue are featuring more hosiery in their catalogs than in recent years. Legwear also appears regularly in such catalogs as J. Crew, Lands’ End and L.L. Bean, and some vendors are even thinking about following Sara Lee in putting out their own catalogs.
Pennaco Hosiery tested its first direct mail catalog, called Stance, last year to liquidate closeout merchandise, and the company is considering doing this regularly starting next year, according to Mitch Brown, legwear manager for the company, which is a division of Danskin. Problems being mulled over are the rising costs of postage and paper, he said.
For the time being, Pennaco — which is basically a department and specialty store resource — will focus on packaging, marketing and new product development for its Danskin and Round the Clock legwear, as well as its licensed Givenchy, Anne Klein and Christian Dior hosiery. To build brand loyalty in this shrinking market, Round the Clock hosiery will start promoting on packages to arrive in stores on April 1 a replacement program if a customer is dissatisfied with the product. The company is considering offering similar guarantees for some of its other brands, Brown said.
Pennaco’s private label accounts for 30 percent of its overall volume and should not increase considerably in the next few years, Brown said. Nevertheless, most department stores have had considerable success with private label hosiery, he said.
“When a store like Neiman Marcus puts its name on a package of hosiery, it immediately becomes a designer label,” Brown said.
Ithaca Industries does about 75 percent of its business in private label and it’s out to build its private label offerings with more fashion items, such as lingerie-inspired sheers and trouser socks, said Joni Zeller-Claxton, director of hosiery design. But at the same time, it wants to develop stronger recognition for its brand, the licensed Evan-Picone hosiery, and for fall will launch the brand’s first outdoor advertising campaign, she said.
For the first time in several years, the firm will also do print ads for the brand, she said.
The company is considering selling hosiery through mail order catalogs or on-line services, but no formal plans have been made, Zeller-Claxton said.
For some, though, cross-shopping does not present opportunities, particularly when it comes to some of the most prestigious names. For example, Bill Bell, president of Giorgio Armani Calze, which licenses the designer’s name, says this hosiery is intentionally underdistributed.
“Being in too many points of sale is worse than not being in enough,” he said.