CHICAGO: At age 21, Megan Weiss already owns eight swimsuits and is on the lookout for No. 9.
Browsing Thursday afternoon at Woodfield Shopping Center in Schaumburg, the Naperville hairstylist said she favors two-piece "tankinis," which consist of a top that covers part of the tummy and a bottom that rises to the navel.
"I don't really have the body for a bikini," explained Weiss, who recently shed 20 pounds but plans to stick with tankinis until she drops another 30. "The tank ones cover my stomach, so that's what I go for."
The women's swimwear industry would probably like to don a forgiving tankini itself these days--it's not as firm as it would like to be. Sales have sagged 1.3 percent to $2.18 billion for the year ended March 31.
But two-piece bathing suits, particularly those sold as separates, are becoming a lifeline for retailers and manufacturers.
"Swimwear separates are the fastest-growing segment in women's swimwear," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for market-research firm NPD Group.
Until about two years ago, a size 8 top was paired with a size 8 bottom and peddled as a set in stores. But today, women have the leeway to buy tops and bottoms in different sizes.
Those merchandising changes, coupled with a flattering cut like the tankini that wasn't even part of the lexicon until 1998, are prompting sturdier ladies to slam the door on the sort of thinking that only the buff-bodied wear two-piece swimsuits.
Nearly two-thirds of women who consider themselves overweight, as well as four out of 10 females who deem themselves obese, said they own two-piece suits, a new NPD study shows. That doesn't mean, however, they actually wear them.
Women own an average of four swimsuits, the study found, but wear only two on a regular basis.
"The advent of mix-and-match separates has made it easier to buy a swimsuit that fits," said Steven Balit, marketing vice president for Maillot Baltex. The Montreal company's brands include Body ID, one of the three best-selling women's swimsuits in U.S. department stores.
Today, nearly 60 percent of Baltex's sales come from separates. That share has doubled from about 30 percent three years ago, when most of its business was derived either from one-piece suits or two-piece sets.
At Nautica, also one of the nation's top three brands, "separates are a big story for women now," a spokesman said. Lands' End, owned by Sears, Roebuck and Co., sees a similar trend.
The trend toward separates also appeals to women who don't consider themselves overweight.
Take Dawn Benati, an account director for Chicago advertising agency LKH&S.
She recently bought her sixth swimsuit at H&M in March. What helped seal the deal: the ability to buy a bottom in one size and a top in another.
"If you buy a size 8, it might be too big on the bottom and right on the top, or if you buy a size 6 it's the other way," said the Chicago resident, 33. "Wearing a bathing suit provokes anxieties, so when the tops and bottoms fit the way they should, you feel a little more confident."
Benati ended up with a black bikini from H&M. She paid about $10 for the bottom and $12 for the top. She typically pays $20 to $40 for her swimsuits.
A recent "Women's Swimwear Exposed" survey by NPD found such insistence on bargains is typical. It's one reason why the women's swimwear industry is having a tough go of boosting sales, experts say.
Three out of four women spend less than $50 on a swimsuit. And more than half of women wait for swimwear to go on sale before buying at least half of the time, said NPD, which surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. females.
Swimsuits are one of the biggest apparel categories that women wait to get marked down before buying, another consumer behavior researcher says.
"What women think they should pay for a swimsuit today is about the same as it was 10 years ago," said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group Ltd. "It's why Wal-Mart and Target have done so well. They're offering women choices at lower prices."
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said women's swimsuit sales are up this year, thanks to prices that meet the criteria of most women in the NPD study. Wal-Mart prices top out at $39.66 for a full suit, while the least expensive separate can be had for $7.23.
Michelle Metcalf shops for swimsuits at Pacific Sunwear of California, but the massage therapist and telecommunications engineer tries not to pay more than $50 for a swimsuit.
"At my age I don't like paying full price," said the 35-year-old.
She ended up spending $98.92 Thursday at the Pacific Sunwear in Woodfield, adding a white bikini and a two-piece pink number with black polka dots to her collection of seven other swimsuits.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times