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Pantyhose sales sag, in part due to fashion choices of younger workers

Pantyhose sales sag, in part due to fashion choices of younger workers

Pantyhose, once a staple in a career woman's wardrobe, face a big snag that cannot be fixed with clear nail polish _ more than a decade of declining sales.
At Hanesbrands, America's leading seller of women's sheer hosiery, the company has been straightforward with investors about the decline. The company said it continues to work on product innovations and is trying to take advantage of current fashion trends, but admits there is little that can be done about the sales decline until the fashion pendulum swings back its way.
"The casualization of the workplace, it is not as strict as before," said Romaine Sargent, vice president and general manager of marketing for hosiery at Hanesbrands. "Women have more options and some are choosing to wear sheer hosiery less."
According to the company, women ages 25 to 54 wear pantyhose an average of 1.8 times a week, down from 3.5 times a week a decade ago. Hosiery sales at Hanesbrands, which includes sheer hosiery (pantyhose, knee-high and thigh high), leggings, tights and trouser socks, totaled $290 million (euro218.4 million) in fiscal 2006 _ a nearly 68 percent drop from the $895 million (euro674.2 million) in sales the company did in fiscal 1995.
The snag, industry experts say, is the generation gap between women who remember a time when stockings and pumps were required workplace attire and slacks were a no-no, an era enshrined forever in the 1980 Jane Fonda-Lily Tomlin comedy "9 to 5."
Nowadays, the trendsetters in many offices wear Capri-style pants, dress shorts, open toe sandals or even flip-flop sandals.
"The traditional waist-high pantyhose garment thrived in the 1980s, it was at a peak," said Sally Kay, president and chief executive of The Hosiery Association, a Charlotte-based trade organization. "But with the onset of the Internet in the '90s, and the ability to work from home, that's when we start to see sales decline."
Hanesbrands, created in September when Sara Lee Corp. spun off its apparel business, makes lingerie, underwear and other clothing for large retailers. The Greensboro-based company's top brand is Hanes, which products include underwear, bras, socks and T-shirts. About 6.5 percent of Hanesbrands' sales comes from hosiery, and those sales have dropped each year since 1995.
Women 40 and older are Hanesbrands' best hosiery customers. Women in the 20-to-35-year-old range wear less sheer hosiery, but show greater interest in alternatives like leggings, tights, trouser socks and even thigh-high hosiery.
"I have a love-hate relationship with pantyhose," said 34-year-old LeeAna S. Valkovschi, a marketing specialist from Charlotte who wears nylons two or three times a week. "I love that they are complimenting to any imperfections that I may have. I hate that by the end of the day they are so binding."
That kind of attitude has contributed to the 24 percent drop in overall sales in Hanesbrands' hosiery business in the past two years.
"Pantyhose feels frumpy and old to younger generations," said Clare Sauro, assistant curator of accessories of The Museum at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. "Plus, if you've never worn pantyhose, you don't think to wear them now."
The current generation of adolescents and young adults _ Generation Y, or those born between 1977 and 1994 _ "has been known to create their own trends," said David Morrison, founder of the young adult marketing consultancy Twentysomething Inc. in Philadelphia. "Whatever they are going to be comfortable in is going to have main appeal."
Morrison and others note that while young people often take any fashion trend to its extreme, they aren't the only ones dressing down. The "casual Friday" trend that started in the 1990s continues to seep into the rest of the work week.
"The idea of simplicity is very appealing," Morrison said. "Whatever can be done to sleep a couple extra minutes."
And possibly save a couple of extra dollars. Depending on where you shop and the brand you buy, a pair of regular, reinforced toe pantyhose runs about $5 (euro4) to $9 (euro7); a three-pair pack about $10 (euro8) to $15 (euro11), maybe cheaper if on sale.
Hanesbrands is addressing its problem in several ways. One is by offering pantyhose alternatives like tights, leggings and trouser socks, although Sargent cautions that the company is not "looking to aggressively spend money" on product development in those areas.
Another is by marketing various sheer hosiery innovations. In addition to the longstanding "control top" feature, which slims the tummy and the rear for a smoother look under clothes, the company now offers "anti-cellulite" nylons and even stockings that promise to hydrate your legs.
Those kind of innovations raise costs, however _ prices for some brands sold at high-end department store can reach $50 (euro38) a pair.
That kind of upselling is tough, particularly when the target is young women who feel squeezed for cash.
"They are asking, 'Why am I spending money on this? It runs, it does this, it does that,'" Morrison said. "A good tie for a guy is going to cost $50 (euro38) to $100 (euro75) and it can be worn again."
Hanesbrands' Sargent said her company is trying to listen to younger consumers' tastes and preferences.
"Our younger consumers are not always aware of the innovations in the line. They know what was, but not necessarily what's new," she said. "We are looking for the appropriate way to reach out to them _ is it the Internet? Peer influence?"
Sauro thinks it might be easier for companies just to let the fashion cycle take its course _ and wait for the seemingly inevitable return of sheer, nude-colored pantyhose.
"You have a young generation that is influencing high fashion and that influences a greater population," Sauro said. "It just takes the right person and the right moment with the right generation of new eyes to change things. It will happen. In fashion, anything's possible."