NEW YORK — They know they’re walking a thin line, but they’re doing it with zeal.


Although legwear saw bursts of energy in the last year, overall sales continue to struggle due to the continued casualization of the workplace, open-toe footwear trends, the unusually warm fall and difficult retail environment.


These factors have resulted in high inventory levels at retail and a decline for spring orders, particularly from department stores, some of which have relocated their hosiery departments to less-trafficked locations away from the main floor.


But legwear makers are girding against the tough times with a variety of strategies, ranging from better inventory management and merchandise planning to new point-of-sale materials and sharper pricing. With overall growth not expected, there will be a grab for market share in 2002, spurred on by the exit of some big name players, most notably, Tommy Hilfiger’s departure from the sheer hosiery arena and Donna Karan’s termination of its sock lines.


On the fashion front, there doesn’t look to be a clear replacement for fishnets, which gave a much needed lift to hosiery last year, although companies are offering more novelty and colors for spring in an effort to generate interest.


“Business is difficult right now,” said Karen Schneider, president of Wolford USA. “When the major stores came in August for spring, they were very bullish about the collection. But when the actual orders came, they planned their businesses down from 10 to 20 percent over last year for our fashion products because their inventories are high, they are unsure of when business will rebound, and fashion is more of an inventory risk because it has a short life.”


To compensate for the decline in that segment, Schneider said Wolford is looking to expand its distribution with specialty stores, which she said have less inventory restrictions than department stores and often take more fashion risks.


Since last May, Wolford has opened more than 35 specialty accounts, with plans to increase that business by up to 20 percent next year. The firm is planning single-digit sales increases next year, lowered from double-digit projections in recent years.


Donna Waxman, president of the U.S. and Canada for Fogal of Switzerland, said her company expects sales to be flat with this year. The luxury hosiery and legwear company is focusing more on its middle price point — about $30 to $40 at retail — in the new year.


Fogal is keying in on its core products, namely hosiery and socks, and condensing its bodywear offerings. Reflecting the tough times, the 86-year-old company is not planning on adding new stores to its stable of 105 worldwide in 2002.


Prints are an important part of Fogal’s spring offerings, including floral motifs and stripes, and colors are key to new styles.


Inventory management will play a key role at Danskin, the maker of Pennaco hosiery. Barry Tartarkin, Pennaco’s vice president and general manager, said: “Nobody can afford to carry the inventory anymore, that’s the challenge. We are going to maintain more inventory in basics at our end, so that the store can carry more fashion.”


Tartarkin said the company is looking to expand its fashion business to 30 percent from 20, and reduce basics to 70 percent.


“We project growth in the low-single digits because we are still going to be reeling from departments moving off of the main floor,” added Carol Hochman, Danskin’s president and chief executive officer. “But from a consumer point of view, we think that business has leveled off.”


Hochman said that during the past few months, the company has seen sell-throughs of up to 100 percent on fashion items, such as the jumbo layered fishnets and novelty lacy looks by lines like Givenchy.


“[Stores] have to be willing to buy fashion and stop moving it from the main floor,” she said.
Some vendors expressed more optimism about the year ahead.


“Consumers are looking for a breath of fresh air and for items that don’t break the bank, but lighten their day,” said Gary Wolkowitz, president of The Hot Sox Co.


Wolkowitz expects to achieve growth next year by expanding distribution of its licensed Polo Ralph Lauren lines. Overall, spring bookings, so far, are ahead of last year, he noted.


“The challenges for us are not as much the sell-ins as the sell-throughs,” Wolkowitz said. “We are working hard to make sure that our products are well viewed at point-of-purchase.”


He said the firm is now flowing in assortment in a way that freshens up the stock every four to six weeks and it also is expanding its in-store merchandising team. Fashion looks at Hot Sox include tropical motifs, camouflage prints, bright colors and florals.


Wayne Lederman, president, Leg Resource, said: “Boot fashions are very strong for next year, and that will bode well for the textured legwear business. Skirts are also being shown by designers in a major way, which will definitely continue to help legwear more into 2002.”


Projections for Leg Resource are flat for next year, but Lederman remains confident that the economy will recover by the third quarter.


“We can look forward to hopefully having a strong third and fourth quarter, which is when the legwear business thrives anyway,” he said.


Lederman said a key challenge will be inventory management and forecasting, so that fashion styles are not overassorted.


“In the past, we would look at closeouts on a quarterly basis, whereas now, we do them on a monthly basis,” he said. “We will have 10 percent less [stockkeeping units], but change them more regularly.”


Pricing will continue to play a major role next year.


“Our research indicates that approximately 70 percent of consumers in department stores also are shopping for hosiery needs in food, drug or mass outlets,” said Roanne Wallace, director of marketing at Hanes Hosiery. “They are going to department stores increasingly to buy color or special-occasion usage, but these are price-driven consumers.”


As a result, Hanes will focus on its Hanes Everyday line, which offers basic nylon pantyhose at entry-level price points of two for $8.


Tartarkin at Pennaco also said the company will change its pricing policy for its Around the Clock line, which it is planning to repackage next year with a contemporary design. Before, Around the Clock was being sold in a two-pack for $9.95. Next year, the line will be merchandised as a single item with a lower price point.

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