With an eye toward increasing its presence in Europe and Asia, VF Corp. has set a 5 percent growth target in its foreign jeans sales this year.

This story first appeared in the June 20, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Terry Lay, chairman of the Greensboro, N.C.-based company’s International Coalition, said the unit surpassed that goal with 8 percent growth in the first quarter, well ahead of the 3 percent gain it sustained last year. In 2001, VF’s international jeans sales represented about 10 percent of total corporate revenue or about $552 million, he said.

While VF and other major jeans brands command a lower market share in the fragmented European market than they do in the U.S., Lay said he believes the number of brands dominating the European market will shrink in the coming years.

“What you find is hundreds if not thousands of brands across Europe,” he said. “As brand awareness is driven across markets, we are going to see a lot of consolidation.”

For the jeans business, the company is pegging increased expectations on building its women’s sales in Europe and expanding its distribution in Asia. As reported, the company plans to start selling the Wrangler brand next year in China, where its Lee sales have been growing at 30 percent annually.

Lay noted that VF’s approach to the European jeans market is quite distinct from its approach to the U.S. market.

“Jeanswear in Europe in relative terms is very attitudinally young and fashion driven,” he said. “A significant difference in Europe versus the U.S. is that the workplace is much more driven by uniforms and dress-up. Older consumers do not wear jeans as often in Europe.”

He noted that Europeans also buy fewer jeans, but spend more on them than do Americans. He said the average American aged 15 or older buys 1.7 pairs of jeans a year for $23 a pop. In Europe, the average shopper 15 or older buys only less than a pair a year (0.9), but spends $32 on average.

“Premium-priced product innovation is critical,” Lay said. “It really makes the difference between market moves upward or downward.”

He added that much of the fashion focus on jeans lately in Europe has been on wash, similar to the trend in the U.S.

“We probably spend as much or more finishing a product as we do manufacturing it,” he said. Modern laser-finishing techniques have become so refined, he added, that if VF wanted to, it could burn a picture of chairman Mackey McDonald’s face onto the thigh of a pair of jeans — “not that we’ve decided that’s commercial,” he quipped.

He said VF sees the Scandinavian nations, England and Italy as its best current growth markets. The economy in Germany — its largest Western European market — has been soft lately, he added.

In 2002, VF acquired the HIS brand, which Lay said he aims to use to boost the company’s sales of women’s jeans in Europe, which currently represent less than 45 percent of overall volume.

“We are underrepresented on the women’s side,” he said.

The company is also trying to boost its presence in Asia, where it primarily works through licensing deals in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines, as well as in Australia. In China, VF has entered on its own, introducing the Lee brand in 1996. VF employees now manage 50 retail counters at Chinese department stores in key cities, including Shanghai and Beijing.

Lay said the company sees enormous growth potential in China, calling it “a critical long-term market.”

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