(Filed Under wholesale Lingerie News). Recently, some lingerie chains are racing to close stores. Frederick’s of Hollywood just closed 16 in the last three months and continues to lose money. And Abercrombie has, over the last few months, closed all of its 28 Gilly Hicks lingerie shops. But there is one retailer that has been rapidly opening intimates stores in the U.S. and is finding profits in the category.
No, I’m not talking about Victoria’s Secret, which, though very profitable, has only increased the number of its shops in the U.S. by net 20 in the past three years, from 1040 at the end of 2010 to 1,060 currently. No, this chain has actually opened six times as many lingerie stores in the U.S. during the same period and is planning to add as many as 42 new ones in 2014.
The chain is Soma, the intimates, sleepwear and loungewear retailer that is a division of Chico’s FAS, Inc. Now there are over 250 total Soma stores in the U.S. (about 17 of them outlet stores) up from 209 at the end of 2012, 181 at the end of 2011 and only 128 at the end of 2010.
One of many possible reasons Soma is finding success where others are currently failing? The age and size range of the consumer it targets: “women who are 35 years old and over with a moderate to high income level....Bras range in size from 32A-44G. The sleepwear and loungewear offerings utilize extra small to extra-extra large sizing,” according to the firm’s latest annual report. Gilly Hicks, at least from the models it has been using, seems to target thin girls in their teens, while Frederick’s a somewhat rounder but not much older woman.
“Soma’s momentum continued into the fourth quarter, with record sales and profits capping a successful 2013,” declared Pamela Knous, Chico’s CFO, EVP and treasurer in comments during a conference call February 27, 2014 in which the company’s fourth quarter 2013 results were discussed. “Amidst a challenging backdrop, we are pleased Soma again drove a mid-single-digit comp among the best in all of specialty apparel this quarter.” A complete transcript of the conference call from Seeking Alpha can be found here: http://seekingalpha.com/article/2055353-chicos-fas-management-discusses-q4-2013-results-earnings-call-transcript?page=1
Indeed, the success at Soma seemed the brightest spot in the company’s annual earnings report and contrasts sharply with the overall performance at Chico’s. For the company as a whole, earnings plummeted to $65.9 million on sales of $2.586 billion for the year ended February 1, 2014 compared to earnings of $180.2 million on sales of $2.581 billion for the year ended February 2, 2013.
Founded in 2004, Soma is youngest of the four Chico’s brands (which include White House | Black Market and Boston Proper), and did not achieve profitability for the company until recently. In the conference call, Chico’s president and CEO David Dyer explained of the Soma consumer: “it takes a while to change bra loyalty and to get her shopping” and added that “Our older stores tend to be the most profitable.” But he also noted that sales at the older stores are still building. “We haven’t found kind of the peak or the plateau of our older stores...The older stores are comping the same rate of our newest stores.”
Dyer continued, “Soma is now in the positive profit category, and we expect that to expand. I mean, I guess the way that you have to look at it is it takes a Soma store probably to pay back the investment is taking us over 3 years, 3 years or so to pay it back, whereas a Chico’s or White House store will give us back cash in 1 year to 18 months. So it’s a much longer ramp-up in the Soma stores.”
But, in a November, 2013 conference call to discuss the prior quarter, Dyer pointed out that it is worth the wait. “We have got stores that are seven years old that are still increasing double-digit. So it takes a while to change the woman from her existing bra into a new one. The product loyalty that you get in that area is greater than most. So once you build the store base and get it to grow and get it to a size, the profit really begins to fall to the bottom line as you get it to the proper size.”
With the turn to profitability, Chico’s has increased investment in the Soma brand as evidenced not only in the opening of new stores but in the development of new products and the spending of more money to promote the launches. Dyer said, in response to an analyst question, “Let’s start with the little engine that could, Soma...We’re launching in March a new bra. This is a bra that usually takes us 2 years to do. We think it’s some breakthrough technology. And from our wear test and from initial customer expectations, customer test panels, we believe that this is going to be a very, very substantial launch. We’re backing it up with more television than we have had for this type of launched in a while.” He was speaking about the “Breathe Beautifully” bra collection with under wire cups that it claims allow “56% more airflow” than similar cups from five, un-named, major competitors. (See BODY 3.13.2014).
Dyer added, “We have 2 things, other products that we’ve launched in Soma. We have the Vanishing Back demi. We were probably remiss in not having enough assortment in the smaller cups and smaller bands. We have taken care of that this year. But the Vanishing Back in the demi and a push-up and this new bra that we are launching, we’ll start at 32A and I think it goes 32 to 36A and 38B is where that will start. And I think we’re going to do a much better job. And it’s not just in nude and black. It’s going to be in color. It’s going to be in print. You’re going to have a full assortment. And I think that this will be a great way for Soma to attract even more customers. I mean, we’ve already launched the Vanishing Back demi. And just the online comments that we’ve got from -- and the reviews have been absolutely incredible. I think we’re going to attract a whole new customer there.”
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