As Marks & Spencer's lingerie director, Janie Schaffer, made her shock exit from Britain's most renowned undies retailer last week, the underwear industry was thrust into the spotlight. Having seen consecutive annual yearly growth since 2008, the industry is a seemingly recession-proof segment. How is that possible? We investigate the latest data.
Increased consumer interest
During recession, underwear is an inexpensive treat and to the consumer can feel more justified and 'necessary' than buying into a specific garment trend. However, this doesn't explain the growth across the varied price points within the industry.
Perhaps we can look to literature for the renewed interest in little somethings? And by 'literature', we mean 50 Shades of Grey, the novel which captivated thousands of red-faced commuters to become the fastest selling book of all time and 2012's Book of the Year in Britain. Putting naughtiness back on the mainstream radar, the book got pulses racing and tills ringing.
But lacy fripperies aren't for everyone, and thanks to the reduced fabric costings and increased demand, shapewear has also rocketed in recent years. Invisible seams and control panels are now as commonplace in the lingerie department as push-up and 'two sizes bigger'. Addition of new shapewear styles happily collided with the bodycon trend which was, and still is, a huge commercial success.
Movement in the markets:
So how has the increased consumer interest affected different segments of the industry?
Looking at bras priced £30 and under, we can see that 29.8% of mass market bras sell through, and in an average of 109 days. However, this market sees the highest rate of discounting (35.5%). The five biggest online stockists of mass market lingerie are (in order of assortment size); House of Fraser, Macy's, ASOS, Zalando and New Look, showing the UK market to be better served.
With House of Fraser being the largest stockist, we compared March 2012's new bra arrivals with March 2013, to find that House of Fraser have upped their investment in the category by 10.4% in just 12 months.
So what is selling best? Polka dots have flown out in lingerie for mass market retailers. New Look have restocked their £12.99 pink polka balcony bra three times since it first arrived on the 15th March. A similar story for the £6 spot and lace balcony bra at George at Asda with all sizes restocked, having only arrived 2 weeks ago! Topshop combined the polka dot trend with another; the longline bralet. The £16 garment has had to be restocked in three sizes since its 6th April arrival.
The premium market, which we have classified as being bras priced £31-£90, sees the least discounting (at just 16.9%) although its retailers are being more patient, having to wait an average of 133 days before seeing products sell through. Most encouraging about this segment of the industry is the restock rate, with 14.2% of styles being continued. Higher than the other two markets, this suggests these mid-range brands are understanding their consumer's demands best.
The biggest (non-pure play) online retailers of premium priced lingerie are House of Fraser, Zalando, ASOS, Bloomingdales and Nordstrom, evening out the UK-centric skew of the mass market. The most-stocked premium brands are Elle MacPherson Intimates, Chantelle, Stella McCartney, Triumph and Calvin Klein. This market has seen a larger increase in investment at its key retailer than mass market - House of Fraser increased their product assortment in this segment by 84.2% in March 2013 compared to March 2012.
Selling best at premium prices are sheer styles such as the £35 Kallisti by Marios Schwab at ASOS. The soft triangle shape has been restocked following an initial sell through on the stock of 8th February and it currently sits out of stock in 2 of 4 sizes. Technical garments are big news for this category too, with sports bras selling well. The £38 'Nock Out' sports bra by Drop of Mindfulness at Zalando has been restocked in pink and grey since its 20th March arrival.
The luxury market has the fastest sell through time, at just 92 days, as well as the highest sell through rate (38.8%) - not surprising considering the reduced number of garments typically stocked by luxury retailers. 12% of styles are restocked, the least across all the markets. Luxury lingerie's biggest online backers are Net-a-Porter, Barney's, ASOS, Neiman Marcus and Harrods, with their most-picked brands being La Perla, Kiki de Montparnasse, Agent Provocateur, Stella McCartney and Deborah Marquit.
It's interesting to see ASOS spanning each of the three market segments as top 5 in global retailers. They really have covered all bases!
During March 2012, Net-a-Porter dropped no new luxury brassiere products into store, instead picking 4 styles for Feb 2012 arrivals, compared to 7 in Feb 2013 - a 75% increase.
For the luxury market, unstructured lace garments are selling best, like the £259 Jenny Packham black lace soft cup bra, restocked at Harrods in January in large and medium sizes, both of which are now sold out. Following fast sell outs on other colours, buyers at Saks Fifth Avenue rebought La Perla's Kyoto Hana sheer lace cup bra in brown, this January retailing at $235.32.
And what about the men?
With David Beckham flaunting his (and H&M's) wares this year, the male underwear industry has also seen a boost. Men's boxers see a similar restock rate to women's premium undies, with 14.8% being restocked, and they take a speedy 92 days on average to sell through. Sell through rates sit at 35.5% but discounting is also high, at 35.5%, showing this market (whose most common price point is £5-£10) is fairly turbulent.
The online retailers with the biggest range of stock are, in size order, House of Fraser, Zappos, ASOS, Next and Zalando, with Calvin Klein, Diesel, Polo Ralph Lauren, Emporio Armani and Björn Borg being the most-stocked brands. What sells best? The fun stuff! ASOS's explosion print boxers at £6, which arrived on the 6th April have sold out and been restocked already and H&M's £9.99 3-pack of boxers featuring stars and stripe patterns in navy and orange have been restocked in some sizes three times since their 14th March arrival online.
Boom or bust?
As the economic market recovers, women will most likely increase their spend on this category of product resulting in slower growth in the mass market segment than the past four years have seen. Those mass market retailers can ensure their consumers still spend with them by aligning their lingerie offering with trend stories across womenswear, using newness as an incentive to buy. Topshop have done incredibly well with aligning their lingerie offering with key trends. This will require good cross-department communication at larger retailers to ensure the lingerie offering sits in line with the womenswear assortment as a whole.