CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Think global, keep alert to new technology and — most of all — stay tuned to the changes in consumer lifestyles and demand. These shifts are affecting the hosiery industry as never before.
That was the key message hammered home at the recent International Conference of Hosiery Manufacturers here, a prologue to the four-day International Hosiery Exposition of the latest in equipment and manufacturing techniques.
Overall, hosiery executives expressed optimism about the future of their industry, but they were quick to note that manufacturing methods, designs, uses and methods of distribution were certain to change dramatically, thanks to rapidly developing technology. Overseas markets provide opportunities as well, but at the same time overseas producers mean the threat of increased competition.
Speakers also illustrated the impact of changing lifestyles as they cited the problems faced by the sheer hosiery industry.
“We’re no longer in the sheer hosiery business; we’re in the legwear business as casual legwear use increases,” said John Piazza, chief executive officer of Sara Lee Hosiery in the U.S., one of about 15 speakers addressing the conference.
“Unprecedented rapid change in the hosiery industry is a huge challenge to us, with customer focus needed to meet this challenge,” said Piazza. “Consumers are driving this change. Lifestyle changes have become critical to this market. About 50 to 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies have at least one ‘casual day’ per week, and hosiery is gone for that day.”
He advised the hosiery executives to “redesign your organization to support this customer-focus commitment.”
“Consumers have a love-hate relationship with sheers today and will not tolerate inconveniences,” Piazza said. “As quality today has become the best ever, consumer hosiery expectations have improved too, especially where durability is concerned.”
Jim Williams, president of Great American Knitting Mills, pointed out: “More casual lifestyle, less desire to shop, more market savvy are all a reflection of the evolving consumer. Three-quarters buy on sale but still want service. Quality is not the sole focus in hosiery, but top quality is expected at the lowest possible price.”
Steve Schlehuser, a principal, and Jerry Armfield, vice president of Kurt Salmon Associates consulting firm, noted that five hosiery companies account for more than half the sheers, tights and socks sold in the U.S. They pointed out that the decreasing consumption of sheer hosiery intensifies the battle for market share in that category. The companies are Sara Lee, Kayser-Roth, Cluett Hosiery Group, Fruit of the Loom, and V.I. Prewitt, a private label sock company in Alabama.
The consultants also predicted that athletic socks might overtake casual and dress socks in unit volume. They also said that by the year 2000, a third of Americans will be minorities with differing tastes and desires.
Attesting to the tightening competitive scramble for market share in the industry, interest was strong in equipment suppliers offering higher speed spinning and knitting machines, reduced labor packaging processes and environmentally friendly chemicals and dyes.
Conti Florentia SRL of Florence, Italy, introduced its first production model of a new toe-closure machine called Lintoe. The machine is a single-cylinder knitting machine modified to perform the toe closure procedure after completion of the traditional knitting process. The sock is robotically transferred to the linking machine, allowing the front-end machine to begin another cycle.
On the fiber front, Miles Inc., Pittsburgh, a large supplier of acrylic fibers, used its exhibit to highlight the fact that construction of its new plant in Bushy Park, S.C., for the U.S. launch of Dorlastan spandex fiber is moving ahead of schedule. The plant is geared for annual production of 3,500 metric tons of the fiber — which has been produced in Europe for 30 years but imported only in small quantities into the U.S. — and is expected to start shipments early next year.