Women Load Up On Lingerie And Comfy Loungewear

Lingerie is suddenly hot. OK. Maybe lingerie is always hot, but industry observers say they are seeing marketing shifts in the fast-growing category that signal even stronger sales ahead.

Last week, The Limited, which owns market leader Victoria's Secret, announced the $628 million acquisition of La Senza, a Canadian lingerie chain. Next spring, J.C. Penney plans to roll out Ambrielle, a line of intimates it describes as "the largest private label brand launch in the company's history."

NPD Group reports that in the 12-month period from October 2005 to September 2006, Americans spent $10.3 billion on intimate apparel--including bras, panties, shapewear, daywear and thermals--a 9 percent jump over year-earlier figures.

"Lingerie sales are growing at a very healthy pace," says Carolyn Egan, concept director for the Tobe Report. "There's a lot of things happening, and it's all about new fabrics, new design treatments, and color. Customers are looking for fashion items as well as comfort clothing--any item that has both sells out immediately."

Proper fitting is key to marketing strategies, Egan adds, with American women finally catching on to the high-service levels of European retailers. A Wacoal study found that eight out of ten women in the U.S.--or nearly 90 million women over the age of 18--are wearing the wrong size bra.

Victoria's Secret, where associates frequently patrol fitting areas with tape measures, has begun to change that. J.C. Penney says it will create a small boutique feel to sell Ambrielle, with an army of 13,000 bra fit specialists.

Another big part of the growth trend is sleepwear, which NPD estimates at $4.1 billion for the 12-month period ended in September, up 16 percent over prior year spending.

"I call this the nightshift," says Egan, pointing to the exploding array of robes, loungewear, and activewear. "When you come home from work, you're not going to cook dinner or walk the dog in what you wore to the office. But you're not going to put on a peignoir, either."

That strong sense of feeling comfy at home isn't just evident at Target and Wal-Mart, where women routinely stock up on fleece pajama bottoms, boxer shorts, and mix-and-match T-shirts.

When Elle MacPherson wanted to show off the new "Boudoir" line of Elle MacPherson Intimates in London last week, Women's Wear Daily reported that she rejected the idea of sending models sashaying down the catwalk in the pricey line, which launches in January at Neiman Marcus. Instead, she styled a hotel suite as a boudoir, sprinkling the lace garter belts, silk corsets and satin bras among half-eaten hamburgers, a TV playing classic movies, and partially finished books.

Finally, the category is getting a big boost from shapewear, which has grown 18 percent in the last year, according to NPD. The trend, fueled in part by the fashion collision of clingy jersey dresses with America's little weight problem, is also driven by the fabric technology, and how well many of these bodyshapers work.

"Typically, women splurge on these items for a special occasion," Egan says, "and then they're hooked."

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