NEW YORK — Faced with an increasingly promotional environment, a shortened regular-price retail season and a still-skittish consumer, swimwear designers and manufacturers are mapping out diverse strategies to generate sales for 1995.

These include lowering prices, moving up delivery times and developing shrewder sourcing.

“To survive, you have to find new ways to run your business,” said Peter Rubin, president of Mainstream Swimwear, which makes moderate- to better-price swimwear, and president of the Swimwear Industry Manufacturers Association. “You just can’t run your business the way you used to two or three years ago.” As part of his strategy, Mainstream for the first time is shipping its entire cruise line by the end of October. Completion had been in mid-December. The company is also developing exclusive merchandise programs with department stores.

“If you stay still, you just can’t get to the next step,” said Doug Arbetman, president and chief executive officer at Sirena Apparel Group Inc., which holds the licenses for Anne Klein and recently purchased the trademark for Rose Marie Reid swimwear. It also manufactures swimwear under the Sirena label and coverups under the Whereabouts label.

Arbetman points to the success of its new Sirena Basic suit, which retails at $45, the company’s first foray below the $50 price point — a strategy to broaden its target market. So far, more than 60,000 units, which were shipped to the stores in October, have sold. For the new cruise season, Sirena is offering customers a free coverup with a purchase of a specially designed Whereabouts suit for $45; this is the company’s first swimwear under the Whereabouts label. Sirena also purchased computerized embroidery equipment that cuts pattern work design time by 25 percent. Mainstream Swimwear and Sirena are not alone. While swimwear makers and designers said they were heartened by double-digit sales increases for 1994, they believe they need to work harder to keep up sales in a retail environment in flux.

Fierce competition from the booming swimwear catalog business and from discount stores has put increased pressure on department stores to meet sales targets. Mass merchants are beefing up their swimwear departments at low prices, while catalogers Spiegel and Victoria’s Secret are expanding their swimwear offerings and offering special prices. Traditional department stores feel more pressure to mark down goods earlier to compete with these other formats, which has cut into the shelf life of regular-priced swimwear. Manufacturers bemoan the fact that the full-price selling season keeps getting shorter; by some tallies, it now covers only about six months.

This year the start of the annual markdown rituals moved up, as big stores in the New York area, led by Macy’s, slashed prices about a week earlier than last year. Macy’s quietly marked down swimsuits in its Herald Square flagship unit on June 3 — about five days earlier than last year. Abraham & Straus, Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue followed, announcing sales in the New York Times on Sunday, June 5.

This angered many manufacturers, including swimwear designer Anne Cole, who discovered her own marked-down designs at Macy’s and other New York department stores the weekend prices broke.

“These stores are giving up too soon, and they’re shooting themselves in the foot,” she said.

Nevertheless, the swimwear industry has received a much-needed boost from a burst of trends — some adopted from lingerie, others from ready-to-wear — and the pace is expected to continue through cruise. Makers also point to the brutal cold this past winter as a boon, jolting early season business in the stores as consumers took refuge in tropical climates. Based on last winter’s experience, department stores are building overall resortwear departments, including swimwear, prompting a slew of companies like Mainstream and Diva to move up deliveries.

In particular, the designer market has received a boost, as stores like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s expand and develop their designer repertoire based on strong early resort seasons. Macy’s this past season doubled the number of designer offerings, expanding its space by nearly 15 percent. Bloomingdale’s also expanded designer assortments.

Here are the trends that makers are banking on to drive upcoming cruise business:

  • Textural interest, as in mesh overlays and plisses.
  • African prints, like zebra and leopard.

    Metallics.

  • Skimpy bikinis.
  • Constructed looks, like underwire bras.
  • Ready-to-wear trends, like plaid and macrame.
  • Earth-tone shades, including burgundy and hunter green.

“There’s a real interest in different kinds of fabrics,” noted Marianne Cobert, sales manager for Liza Bruce, whose swimwear rang up $1.2 million in sales for the 1994 season. Liza Bruce’s designs include stretched metallic velour, thick matte Lycra spandex crepe and nude satins. Retail bestsellers this past season included a metallic string bikini and a deep purple, one-piece dip-dyed swimsuit with mesh overlay.

The consumer attraction to a diversity of fabrics was illustrated this past season at other firms as well. According to Arbetman, Sirena’s best-selling styles at retail have been ethnic looks, including African prints.

Rubin of Mainstream Swimwear, which is coming off an 18 percent increase over 1993, noted that his lace and plaid one-piece swimsuits were doing well in the stores.

Brian Epstein, vice president and general manager of Jantzen Swimwear, which will post a 12 percent gain in the season just ended, compared with the previous year, noted that key bestsellers included high-neck, one-piece suits with mesh overlays and crocheted suits.

Joe Kaminsky, president of Diva Fashions Ltd., a U.S. subsidiary of Diva Israel, said bestsellers were lace-trimmed suits, string bikinis, and zebra-patterned suits. He expects sales gains of about 12 to 15 percent for the 1995 cruise season. But banking on fashion trends to drive business isn’t enough. Designers and manufacturers say they need to offer consumers good value for the dollar.

Kaminsky, for example, is launching for the cruise season a lower-priced contemporary line called Diva Studio. The suits will retail between $65 and $70; Diva’s other suits carry price tags of about $85 to $100.

Swimwear designer Cole, whose line is produced by Authentic Fitness Corp., has lowered her prices by 10 to 15 percent for the cruise season.

She said her retail swimwear prices will be in the range of $60 to more than $70, rather than $80 to more than $90, adding that she’s been able to lower prices because of better sourcing. “I work with the domestic mills more closely these days,” she said.

Arbetman of Sirena said the company churned out the lower-priced Sirena Basic swimsuit line at its manufacturing facility in Mexico, which is two years old.

“It really has become more cost-effective to make our suits there,” said Arbetman, noting that the facility also makes some of its private label suits, as well as suits under the Rose Marie Reid label.

Companies also see the need to develop niche marketing plans, targeting certain consumer segments. For example, Jantzen Swimwear has expanded its repertoire of swimsuits over the past six months to reach certain consumers.

Jantzen’s Epstein said that under his direction, the company added Electric Beach, a junior swimwear line, and Jantzen Sport, which targets the 25-to-30-year-old customer. Other niche lines include Coastal Zone, designed for the 35-plus woman, and Classics, for the more mature customer.

“We are learning that you have to be market-driven,” noted Epstein, adding that he attributes the company’s 35 percent sales increase for 1994 to the new strategy. “You just can’t have one suit that fits everyone.”

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