SOCKS APPEAL

Socks are gaining sales legs in supermarkets, at the expense of the declining pantyhose and nylons category.The shift to a more relaxed workplace environment, coupled with today's casual fashion trends, are why retailers increasingly offer more socks, tights, underwear and other apparel.Although the $777 million tights/socks category decreased 8.3% in sales in the food, drug and mass channels, excluding

Socks are gaining sales legs in supermarkets, at the expense of the declining pantyhose and nylons category.

The shift to a more relaxed workplace environment, coupled with today's casual fashion trends, are why retailers increasingly offer more socks, tights, underwear and other apparel.

Although the $777 million tights/socks category decreased 8.3% in sales in the food, drug and mass channels, excluding Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., the tights/socks category stretched 31.8% in dollar sales to $74.7 million for the supermarket channel during the 52-week period ending Sept. 7, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

The $421 million pantyhose business in food, drug and mass ran up $163.5 million in supermarket channel sales during the same 52-week period, a decline of 14.8% in dollar sales from a year ago, according to IRI. In food, drug and mass combined, excluding Wal-Mart, pantyhose sales decreased 15.6%.

The evolution from "Casual Friday" to "Casual Every Day" has torn a large "run" in the pantyhose industry. Women purchased 2.28 billion pairs of pantyhose in 1989, according to published reports. Last year, women bought 600 million pairs.

"The hosiery category has been flat for a number of years due largely to change in the dress code in many working environments to business casual," said Jan Winn, category manager, Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass. "We have done a category plan and analysis, and have changed the product mix to reflect today's lifestyles."

This analysis includes reducing or eliminating non-performing stockkeeping units and replacing them with business-casual socks and tights, she noted. For example, eight-foot hosiery sections have been pared down to three or four feet; socks take up the rest of the footage.

The casual evolution in the workplace contributes to the decline in demand for hosiery, said Gordon Thompson, general merchandise buyer, Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash. "Everywhere it's business casual, where skirts and dresses are not the norm," he said. "The demand for nylons isn't big." The retailer houses an eight-foot section of hosiery and tights, and a four-foot section of socks, he said. The displays are adjacent to the cosmetics and health and beauty care area.

"There's definitely a trend toward more casual dress in the office, and clearly trouser socks are more available as consumer demand shifts," said Karen Meleta, manager for corporate communications and media relations, Wakefern Food Corp., Elizabeth, N.J. "Sports socks and crew socks have become more in demand for a fashion look and as consumers get more into physical fitness. Fashion tights complete with different colors, prints and patterns has also become more prevalent, she said.

"Overall, the assortment of hosiery, socks, tights and underwear has grown, and sales have increased from year to year," Meleta said.

Martin's Supermarkets, South Bend, Ind., "drastically" cut its pantyhose departments from eight to 12-foot sections to four to eight-foot sections, said Ken Bruce, director of nonfoods. "It's a generational thing," he said. "A lot of women don't wear pantyhose anymore."

However, "sales have shown good response on socks, and we've expanded on them," said Bruce. In the eight locations where the retailer has substantial dollar sections, socks are merchandised with success, he said. "They're not name brands, but they do rather well."

While the hosiery category has been "flat" or on the decline, said Steve Urgo, general merchandise buyer, Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., the supermarket chain has experienced "sales pickup" with other soft goods and apparel, including value-oriented shirts, skirts and blankets, he said.

"Overall, the hosiery and nylon category has been pretty flat or trending down," Urgo said. "We've seen some space reductions that have made sense for sales, but the category is certainly not dead by any stretch of the word."

Save Mart operates eight-foot to 16-foot in-line pantyhose sections featuring the top two hosiery brands in the supermarket channel: L'eggs, a brand under Sara Lee Intimate Apparel & Hosiery, Winston-Salem, N.C.; and No Nonsense, a brand under Kayser-Roth, Greensboro, N.C. The retailer has experimented with a larger sock program, Urgo noted.

"We did expand our sock program and brought in a deeper selection, and it seems to be doing pretty good," he said.

In addition to Save Mart, other chains have extended their intimate-apparel selections to include everyday casual wear. Rosauers has displayed dump bins of flannel pajamas and T-shirts, said Thompson, and "some stores have done well with that."

While the current sheer-hosiery trend is a "challenging" one, said Tamara Thompson, marketing manager for L'eggs, there is definitely opportunity to drive business within the food class of trade. Supermarkets' success in the hosiery business hinges on five critical factors:

National brands like L'eggs provide retailers with the benefit of strong consumer-brand recognition. Sara Lee Branded Apparel also produces underwear, T-shirts, socks, bras and other casual wear under brands like Hanes, Hanes Her Way, Bali, Playtex and Barely There, among others.

A strong supply chain is essential to drive retailers' businesses, said Thompson. Manufacturers that can deliver product in a timely manner and align strategically with the retailers' supply chain are valued partners and major assets to the retail community.

Manufacturers need to strive for an optimal product mix that represents appropriate legwear trends, providing an assortment of sheer hosiery, fashion prints and casual products, including socks and tights.

Productivity is important to food retailers. Ensuring that the strongest assortment is placed in [retailer] accounts will improve overall product turns, reduce inventory exposure, and maximize profitability for retailers and manufacturers.

Effective promotional efforts during peak selling seasons will result in increased foot traffic and opportunities for incremental purchases. These peak seasons include any "dress up" occasion, Thompson said, including Easter and Mother's Day. Back-to-school time is a major opportunity to display casual products like socks and tights.

The hosiery industry may be on a downward trend, but manufacturers are coming up with new products to keep up with the times and provide a plethora of styles to suit every taste. New styles include pantyhose embedded with moisturizers, nylons for blue jeans, and hose that control cellulite and provide a bare-leg look.