Sheer hosiery sales continue to slip

The Associated Press

Here's a little secret, guys: Wearing pantyhose is no fun.

Sure, their sheer allure enhances the legs. But they're tight, uncomfortable and one little rip can make them run -- and ruin an entire outfit. And although they once were a staple in a career woman's wardrobe, sheer hosiery today faces an even bigger snag that can't be fixed with clear nail polish or a Band-Aid -- more than a decade of declining sales.

At Hanesbrands Inc., the nation's leading seller of women's sheer hosiery, the company has been straightforward with investors about the decline. The company said it continued to work on product innovations and was trying to take advantage of current fashion trends, but acknowledged that there was little that could be done about the sales decline until the fashion pendulum swung 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 in fiscal 2006 -- a nearly 68% drop from the $895 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, trendsetters in many offices wear Capri-style pants, dress shorts, open toe sandals or even flip-flops.

"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 Assn., a Charlotte, N.C.-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, N.C.-based company's top brand is Hanes, whose products include underwear, bras, socks and T-shirts. About 6.5% 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 such as 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% drop in overall sales in Hanesbrands' hosiery business in the last two years.

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 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 although 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 workweek.

"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 to $9; a three-pair pack about $10 to $15, 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 long-standing "control top" feature, 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 stores can reach $50 a pair.

That kind of sale is tough, particularly when the target is young women who feel squeezed for cash.

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, said Clare Sauro, assistant curator of accessories of the Museum at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

"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."

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