CASUAL STYLES SPARK HOPE OF SPRING REVIVAL

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg / with contributions from Kristi Ellis, Los Angeles / Rusty Williamson, Dallas

NEW YORK — The struggle to revive the legwear business continues, as some retailers eke out small victories by trying out just about every merchandising remedy they can think of.
A full recovery remains elusive for the listless category, which has for several seasons been hammered by casual dress codes, the bare-leg look and footwear that does not lend itself to sheers.
But there are a few bright spots. Casual legwear, especially socks, continue to generate sales in an otherwise lackluster category, and even sheers are showing signs of a comeback.
“Women are really focused on making sure they have the right legwear with the right outfits. They know that legwear can make or crash a look,” said Susie Watkins, buyer for B. Barnett, a specialty store in Little Rock, Ark. “And our younger crowd is asking for the fashion hosiery. Customers always buy several pairs of hose. I have some customers who come in and ask us to fix them up with all hosiery for the season.”
Among the latest prescriptions for drumming up sales: more trunk shows, a greater focus on private label, an avoidance of sale events and emphasis on more fashion-oriented looks, according to a spot check of five merchants, including specialty stores and department stores, last week.
At Macy’s West, casual legwear “is performing nicely with a double-digit percentage increase over last year, said Rich Zappala, hosiery buyer for Macy’s West. He added, however, that the sheer business “is difficult at best.”
Zappala said that hosiery is planned down for spring and summer, and socks are planned ahead, due largely to the athletic portion of the business.
“The tights business will be flat for spring, after a disastrous fall,” he said.
The fact that many women went back to not wearing any legwear for fall did not help business, he said. Spring sales, however, are “leveling off,” he added.
At Macy’s West, the three most popular brands are Hanes Silk Reflections, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, according to Zappala.
“Hanes offered a perfect matte 20-denier basic hosiery item for spring, and that is helping invigorate the business,” said Zappala. “Calvin Klein has fared better because they do a good job of marketing product.”
The designer’s introduction of Invisible Control sheers last fall has driven up the business at Macy’s West. Zappala said that Calvin Klein has taken a lot of business away from Donna Karan, which hasn’t introduced a lot of new product since the designer’s Nudes line.
He said that Macy’s West has two kinds of customers: one who replenishes hosiery for her work wardrobe and favors certain brands, and another who has to wear sheers, but wants a bare-leg look and is not so brand loyal.
Macy’s West is not planning to run any special spring promotions, since last spring’s push for nude-colored sheers with a bare-leg look flopped on a national level, Zappala said.
“In spring ’99, we did a huge bare-leg program. But that is when the business declined and then hit the wall,” he said. “If you don’t have the need and demand, it doesn’t matter what you do.”
Another issue hindering the legwear business is the lack of fashion, Zappala said. It has not been introduced, since business has been so difficult.
“Fashion sells the basics,” he said. “When you shop Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and there isn’t any fashion, it’s a problem.”
Zappala also noted that footwear is more of an influential issue than weather.
“When so many celebrities are shown in magazines wearing strappy shoes and no hose, it doesn’t help invigorate the category,” he said.
In the Southwest, specialty stores are scoring with tightly edited basic and fashion legwear assortments.
“Legwear sales are better than ever,” said Watkins of B. Barnett, which specializes in bridge and designer sportswear.
The retailer’s sales are ahead of last year by a small double-digit percentage, she said.
“We’re getting back into fashion hosiery, from fishnets to some wild styles, after a long emphasis on nudes and sheers,” Watkins said. “Top vendors are Wolford and Calvin Klein.”
To further enhance sales, B. Barnett is staging trunk shows for Wolford twice a year.
Currently, the retailer’s best-selling styles include an assortment of Wolford sheers at $25, fishnets at $40, tights at $50 and Calvin Klein sheers at $11.
At Lester Melnick, a three-unit women’s bridge and designer specialty chain in Dallas, the legwear business has been fueled by basic and fashion styles, said Janet Stieve, accessories buyer.
“Our older customers love Hanes control-top sheers, at $6.95, in a range of colors. The younger women like CK by Calvin Klein extreme sheers at $8.50 and Calvin Klein’s invisible control sheers at $11,” Stieve said. “We always do multiple sales.”
For fall and winter, she said she integrates more fashion legwear into the chain’s mix, including lace, fishnets and texture.
“I would love to see fashion legwear become more important. It would be a reason to expand the business, which has been even now for over three years,” she said.
Balliet’s, a women’s better to designer specialty store in Oklahoma City, Okla., continues to do well with sheers, said DeDe Benham, buyer. She attributed that to her clientele’s polished and tailored fashion sensibility.
Overall the retailer’s legwear business is even, she said.
Wolford generates most of Balliet’s legwear business, with $45 sheer control-top styles being the bestsellers. To enhance sales, Wolford stages trunk shows at Balliet’s at least twice a year, Benham noted.
Novelty tights and socks continue to be the bestsellers at Foot Traffic, a catalog and Internet business, according to Denny Pickett, director of merchandising.
Tights in animal prints, especially zebra patterns or in large floral designs, are very popular, he said. Many customers are taking advantage of the three pairs for $39 instead of buying individual pairs for $18, Pickett said.
“Sales of these items have been pretty consistent. We haven’t seen a lot of deviation since November. Customers look for what they can’t find in stores,” Pickett said. “Once people find us, they always come back.”
Foot Traffic’s sales are running 25 percent ahead of last year, which Pickett attributed to increased distribution of the company’s catalog. Circulation has doubled in the past three months, and the company has gained additional exposure from its e-commerce site.
With an average customer of 35 years old, Foot Traffic does not rely on juniors to buy fashion-forward styles. Older customers also like the looks of E.G. Smith’s boot socks, which are offered in 16 colors. That item has triggered “constant reorders,” Pickett said. To be able to respond to shoppers preferences and spending habits, Foot Traffic is developing more private label items. Sales of private label merchandise and imported goods account for 70 percent of total sales compared with 50 percent last year. That figure is expected to increase slightly in the next year, Pickett said.
“[With private label], we have more control over the margins, product, shipping and receiving the goods on time. We don’t have to worry about being out of stock,” he said. “We know just where we stand.”
Jeff Drake, the buyer of sheer hosiery, handbags and small leather goods for Gottschalks, a Fresno, Calif.-based, 45-store chain, said that comp sales are down 2 percent for the month, compared with the same selling period last year. Gottschalks’ legwear sales last year finished 1 percent ahead based on a comp-store basis.
The retailer’s three most popular brands are Hanes’s Silk Reflections, Jockey and DKNY.
Fashion is not a viable remedy for this retailer. “Our customer is more mainstream and is not as cutting-edge in terms of fashion,” Drake said.
Gottschalks does run special promotions and offers a hosiery club card, which allows customers who make multiple purchases to receive a free pair of sheers.
The most recent Hanes presale event received a “strong response,” he said.
Drake said he hasn’t seen a “dramatic change” in shoppers’ buying patterns.
“They are predicting this shift in the market to a hipper, more fashion-conscious customer, but we haven’t seen it,” he said.
Traditional colors continue to sell, dominated by black and followed by the nude-colored look.
“We are continuing to keep a strong position on sheer hosiery in our stores,” Drake said. “We are not walking away from that business at all.”

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