NEW YORK — The first quarter of 2004 may have been a lot rosier than year-ago sales for lingerie, but retailers are nonetheless cautious.
Compared with the overall stagnant retail environment in 2003, lingerie business generally managed to break even or, in some cases, gain single-digit growth with key items and classifications such as daywear and special occasion, as well as merchandise with a funky, fashion edge.
This continues to be the case this spring as merchants size up their business and look ahead to fall and holiday, a critical period when inventories will ideally be flattened and lingerie departments will be prepped with fresh product.
The key issue for many retailers will be to keep the momentum going, and at the same time cultivate and grow the loyalty of consumers who are distracted by a number of broader issues: the worry over jobs, rising gas prices, the presidential election and the war in Iraq.
To maintain the market activity, retailers are wooing consumers with several strategies:
- Expansion into new brands with updated looks for a younger consumer base.
- Merchandising lingerie on the ready-to-wear floor.
- A stronger focus on important high-end names.
- Enhanced customer service.
- Wider assortments of styles and sizes.
Jennifer DeWinter, general merchandise manager of intimate apparel, hosiery, accessories and fine and fashion jewelry at Saks Fifth Avenue, said: “As we grow and expand our customer base, we will need to continue expanding the products to support those customers’ needs. If we go after a more modern customer, we’ll develop assortments accordingly. Although we’ve had increases, there are bigger and greater opportunities than we are currently getting.
“The challenge,” added DeWinter, “is to continue to grow at a higher increase. There are enough other businesses that are strong or stronger, such as fine jewelry, and I would like to see intimate apparel there.”
DeWinter said the recent announcement of plans to move intimate apparel to the rtw floor by Saks’ chief executive officer Fred Wilson is a key opportunity for increased growth. “Maybe moving in or adjacent to ready-to-wear will give intimate apparel a special opportunity,” she said.
However, DeWinter cautioned that such opportunities should be analyzed carefully, noting that traditional boudoir fare may not be the perfect companion to a funky rtw department.
Linda LoRe, president and ceo of Frederick’s of Hollywood, observed, “We’re at a time when the economy is starting to turn, and that’s a nice thing. The biggest challenge for us as a retailer is recognizing which channels consumers are shopping, what is motivating them to shop those channels and how we can be there for them. We have to make sure our brands are shored up and make it a pleasant shopping experience for our customers.”
LoRe further noted, “Customer service is the main issue as it pertains to what a customer needs and wants. We have to continue delivering the best customer service regardless of which channel — catalogue, stores or our Web site — the customer decides to shop in.”
“I feel we’ve brought in a lot of new and young brands, and that’s been great,” said Roopal Patel, women’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “Everything looks so fresh and young and the fashion and patterns are terrific. Our sales staff has embraced all of this newness tremendously. But the challenge is to keep that momentum going.”
At Bergdorf’s, several brands generating newness with a rtw flavor include Paul & Joe, which does contemporary chemises and camis, and Leigh Bantivoglio, a specialist of updated lace daywear in a full range of fashion colors, said Patel.
Bob Pawlak, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel, furs and coats at Carson Pirie Scott, did not want to discuss details of certain strategies, but he said upscale names were a key incentive.
“We are working on initiatives to intensify some higher-end brands, what I call sizzle resources, and that is consuming a lot of our time,” he said. “But I don’t know if I consider that our greatest challenge. It’s a fun and rewarding strategy.”
However, Pawlak acknowledged that keeping customer traffic flowing through intimate apparel departments was challenging. “We do have a number of initiatives to generate traffic. It’s very rewarding when you have new merchandise moving,” he said.
Gianluca Flore, ceo of La Perla USA, which operates eight boutiques in the U.S. and 63 worldwide, said, “It is imperative to make American women aware of the importance of lingerie, as it is the key accessory in a woman’s wardrobe. La Perla’s main focus continues to be a world leader in producing innovative silhouettes with exclusive quality and development.” He added the launch this year of La Perla Black Label, a lingerie brand aimed at a hip, younger consumer, is the result of La Perla’s “passion for creativity and innovative fabrics.”
For some specialty boutiques, comfort is the primary draw.
Chris Legatski, owner of the Santa Fe-based lingerie boutique Allure, said, “My issue right now is bras. I’m doing extraordinarily well with everyday, basic bras. But there’s a continued resistance to fashion and specialty bras and bustiers that can only be worn with certain items. And I have a lot invested in fashion items. This isn’t the fashion capital of the world. I may have some very wealthy customers, but they want comfort. That’s the lifestyle here.”
Legatski said her best-selling brands are Wolford, Hanro, Gemma, Le Mystere and Cosabella.
Rebecca Apsan, owner of La Petite Coquette, a lingerie shop in Manhattan, said “fulfilling customers’ needs” is her first priority, followed by keeping up with competition from rtw operations that sell lingerie.
“Inventory — that’s the problem,” said Apsan. “They’ll buy six of something, and I’ll be out of that style in that size. I can’t fulfill the amount of merchandise people want. I’ll just have to buy more. And trends — everybody is now much more lingerie knowledgeable. So many apparel stores are selling lingerie that it’s unbelievable.”