HOSIERY’S DRESS DOWN

Byline: Marilyn Nason

PALM BEACH, Fla. — While some executives claim their businesses have rebounded this fall, industry members at The Hosiery Association’s 95th Annual Meeting and Convention warned that much work still needs to be done to get the category back on track.
Held at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach from Sept. 27 to Oct. 1, THA and its aligned Carolina Hosiery Association members discussed ways to maintain the globally competitive edge American hosiery still holds in the marketplace given the current economic, retail and consumer climate.
At the conference, which was attended by some 300 hosiery executives, many stressed the importance of repositioning hosiery into a fashion accessory rather than the necessary commodity status it still maintains with consumers.
Other issues raised included the importance for vendors to reassess and reinvent customer service. Some said the rising number of underdeveloped countries getting into the hosiery business for the first time must also not be overlooked.
Several industry leaders said the future of hosiery has never been more complicated, specifically given the less-than-enthusiastic way consumers approach both socks and hosiery purchases today.
Mary Jean Mauro, women’s hosiery buyer at J.C. Penney, said it is essential to keep hosiery exciting by design, style and colorway, and then some. With today’s better educated and better informed consumers, “we must be a different retailer,” she noted. This doesn’t just require fashionable merchandise, she explained, but also the manufacturers’ cooperation to be certain “we have what the customer wants, when she wants it, in the right store. She will not settle for less and we can’t expect her to.”
Mauro predicted “sheer hosiery will continue to decline and casual hosiery will be flat to up slightly [this year].” She also said a growing concern is that “teens are totally negative to pantyhose.”
Since today’s customers show little inclination toward store or brand loyalty, Mauro said the hosiery industry has been “too slow to adopt innovations and technology and listen to our customer.’
“Too much supply is chasing too little demand,” she said.
Penney’s is currently moving from a decentralized buying organization to a centralized one. For vendors, this means having to supply quicker service, more analysis of market trends and better forecasting.
Above all, Mauro said, “Building trusting relationships, working harder, smarter, faster, teaching, learning together and wowing the customer” are the rules for success between the hosiery industry and retailers.
“The future of the industry is totally regulated by innovation,” said Riber N. Francois, DuPont’s global business director, adding that the ordinary and basic will not be enough to sustain the industry. Francois explained incentives, like the Sept. 21 Dress Thursday, are an example of the fashion industry trying to reach consumers with an innovative promotion, something the hosiery industry should note.
Kevin Toomey, president and chief executive officer at Golden Lady/Kayser-Roth, said he expected the present drop in sheers and increased business in socks to continue, with sheers falling by another 60 percent.
“We’re operating to survive, not thrive,” he said.
Toomey suggested one solution might focus on manufacturers becoming more direct-to-consumer capable to fulfill the retailer relation with consumers.
There is a growing sense of the difficulty of meeting requirements with increasing raw material and production costs in the generally tight climate.
“The retailer of tomorrow has not yet been born,” said James A. Williams, president and ceo of Great American Knitting Mills.
Williams noted many current challenges in the category, including a low available labor pool, high benefits, rising raw-material costs, increased global market competition and mounting revenue pressures. On the positive side, “We can compete globally through innovations, technology investments and adapting to the fickle customer and her needs,” he noted. “[It’s] not trying to be all things to all people, but concentrating on the true value of our product, not price alone.”
Some industry executives voiced the need to confront the pending implications the removal of tariffs from World Trade Organization countries will have in 2005.
Gary Walker, vice president of sales and marketing at Harriet & Henderson Yarns, said while changes with NAFTA and U.S. imports from Mexico had little overall negative effect to date, the tariff removal could pose a significant challenge.
“We’re not bad guys as manufacturers,” said W. Kemp Maunet III, president of Maunet Hosiery. To offset any potential threat from rising imports, Maunet urged hosiery manufacturers to prepare themselves for more consolidations in the industry, and to become actively involved in government and policy making that supports, rather than adds pressure on small businesses.
Sid Smith, THA’s president, said being ready globally to compete will not be determined by the size of the manufacturer but by the strategically savvy management acumen of partnerships in place and the readiness of appropriate manufacturing technology.
Some noted the category must also take into account the impact the Internet might have on retailers as it continues to grow. With legwear e-commerce sites like Gazelle.com having been forced to shut down, several panelists warned most hosiery companies are too small to become an individual destination on the Internet. Many said it is better to partner with one who is and serve as a fulfillment vehicle for online purchases.

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