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Specialty lingerie chains recorded 20.2 percent of total lingerie sales in France in 2006, according to the latest statistics compiled by the French Fashion Institute, or IFM. That's a big step up from when chains first hit the retail scene here in the early Nineties, then representing around 6 percent of sales.
"Chains have made a spectacular advance," said Nathalie Gennérat, head of research for the lingerie market at IFM. "Their presence is a real menace to both independent boutiques and supermarkets."
Gennérat listed Etam, Darjeeling, Orcanta, Body One and Princesse Tam Tam among the country's leading specialty chains, with Etam "a long way out in front." According to IFM, French women over age 15 spent 2.5 billion euros, or about $4 billion, on lingerie in France in 2006.
Specialty chains have been aggressively expanding in Europe to grab a bigger slice of the innerwear pie. Etam, which operates 279 stores and shop areas in France, with 123 franchises abroad, opened 90 stores last year, of which 20 were in France and the remainder mainly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
"We've been focusing on emerging countries, as the Anglo-Saxon markets are too saturated," said Judith Sebban, head of Etam's investor relations.
Aside from supermarkets in France, fashion chains such as Hennes & Mauritz are considered the sector's main competitor, churning out bargain bras and panties. As a result, Etam introduced its own low-budget label last fall called Undiz that specializes in young mix-and-match fashion sets. The brand, which now has five stores in shopping malls around Paris, will initially be developed across France, Sebban said.
"It's important to have all of the price points covered," she added, explaining how store renovation, merchandising, evolving product offerings and innovative concepts, such as mother-and-daughter lingerie sets, are among the firm's strategies for maintaining business growth.
"We create very theatrical window displays and have also increased our advertising budget to ensure visibility on billboards and in fashion magazines," she said.