(Filed Under wholesale Lingerie News). Anita, the German intimates manufacturer, has made great strides in recent years in the U.S. market. And guiding the way for the last several years of that growth here has been Steven Bernstein, general manager. In this interview with BODY Magazine publisher Nick Monjo, he discusses overall market conditions, as well as some of the strategy at Anita.
MONJO: From your perspective, and talking about your segment of the industry, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing the better bra and swim brands in the larger cup and fuller figure area?
BERNSTEIN: Let me respond to this question in several parts, and preface with the understanding that many aspects of my responses are simply my impression versus hard-data.
Let’s begin with bras - First, we need to carve-out the term “better” as there currently exists limited sanctuary of a better area, that we all knew decades ago. There used to be brands (or designer-brands/licenses back then for the most part) that were segregated from the promotional arena. The challenge is that the landscape of brick-and-mortar/catalog stores have given way to online retailing.
Regarding full-cup/full-figure strategy, there are not many vendors who do this category justice, yet the brands that proliferate the market are many. This will again level-off. The more brands that exist, the higher the propensity for the prices AND MARGINS to erode.
An additional and crucial challenge to all soft-goods lines, whether it be hosiery or lingerie or RTW, is the adoption of Amazon’s philosophy of margin NOT being of paramount concern. I can’t remember a meeting where margin isn’t the #1 or #2 topic, and with Amazon it is far down the hierarchy of magnitude. This is fine for commodity-driven items, but for seasonal lines, this poses a serious threat. At each market the erosion of margins are a topic of conversation among manufacturers.
For those of us around a few years, we remember the Warnaco concept of market-share-at-all-cost. The success of this strategy was evident by the de-listing from the NY Stock Exchange as the share-price dropped below $1. Is that a win? If the battle was market-share acquisition then yes, but as for the ultimate result…Ask the shareholders if they won the war.
Swimwear is a different business entirely, as the seasonality is a shrinking window and either you have a positive season, or an absolute disastrous season. External factors figure into the result in a much more tangible manner. Economy, weather, consumer confidence affects swimwear sales and turn. Lingerie is not immune but somewhat insulated by the year-round need. Swimwear can be viewed as a want.
MONJO: The intimate apparel industry has changed a great deal over the years. Can you give us a brief summary or your journey through the industry so we can understand your perspective?
BERNSTEIN: Wow, my journey… well as I ponder that question I realize I am three decades into this business and it amazes me how the industry has changed so much, yet the fundamentals of the business remains the same. My core competency has always been: “Make great fitting bras, provide value, and you will be successful.” Simple recipe, yet the ingredients are much more challenging to acquire and assemble.
I began my career in a family business which, much akin to Anita, was a privately-held lingerie and swimwear company embracing a non-outsourcing model. All assets were wholly owned. I regret not being able to work directly with my grandfather who acquired the business in the early 1900’s. The most recognizable brand was Roxanne swimsuits. This brand pioneered bra-sizing of swimsuits in 1948, as a (hold onto your hat) joint-venture with R.H. Macy’s. So bra-sizing of swimsuits has been all I understood growing-up, and after 10 years working various aspects of the business, I needed to venture out on my own. I was close with Joya Patterson at S & S wires and she asked me if I was interested in beginning a large-cup bra line with a company in NYC. I asked how many years have they been making bras, she stated they had never made a bra!!! Understandably I was skeptical, but in 1995 agreed to meet, and that’s how Lunaire was born. Ben Chan was new to the industry and I put together a plan to make great-fitting bras at a price-point above “branded” yet below “designer” (see above) and the rest is history. Five years later I found myself looking for another challenge, and I formed Figleaves.com with several truly entrepreneurial executives. In 2000 it was one of the first pure-play dotcom lingerie retailers and still exists today. I am happy that my legacy lives-on in these firms and that the DNA forming these companies still resonates within the brands.
I joined Anita in 2009 with the responsibility to grow the brand in the USA, as it has been established in Europe since 1886, so the challenge was a mature brand on one continent and a neophyte brand in North America. In the past 5 years Anita has grown in volume AND more importantly, reputation, as a premier fit/quality brand, which has defined my career, so our goals are aligned.
MONJO: The U.S. has some of the lowest apparel and intimate apparel prices in the world. That having been said, the US also has 325 million people, and millions who can afford to spend whatever they want on a bra. As a retailer (and as a wholesaler) how does one successfully negotiate this terrain and achieve success in the better market?
BERNSTEIN: I agree with the premise that our standard of living affords consumers in the USA the choices to purchase intimate apparel at any price, but buying habits in every category have tipping-points, and the bra-business is not immune to this paradigm. A premier example of this is automobiles. Sure, from a purely disposable-income perspective, many Americans can afford a Mercedes-Benz at the same prices as their European counterparts, but even this brand has introduced exclusive models for the USA market that are less expensive, due to competitive forces.
Now to answer why the USA has lower prices on bras. First economies-of-scale is the fundamental reason, as buying container-loads commands a lower per-unit-cost. Secondly include NAFTA/CAFTA which has eliminated duty as a cost-factor, Far East factories have either partnered or purchased facilities in this hemisphere in order to compete in the domestic market you speak of. Additionally, since 2008 sourcing has become much more competitive and logically countries with large labor-forces have also driven prices down. The outsourcing model continues to flourish, and in rare cases such as Anita we own all our own molding, cutting, sewing, and distribution points to major markets.
From the brick-and-mortar retail perspective BODY Magazine does a stellar job interviewing boutiques and major-stores, and they articulate their challenges much better than I ever could, but from the vendor side, the online channel still pushes the manufactures to provide margin insulation. I have said this over many years since I formed Figleaves.com, that the same margin requirements do not exist in a pure-play dotcom that a brick-and-mortar group have. Managing multiple outlets regarding real estate (CAM, Insurance, taxes) maintenance, liability, security, risk management, sales-force, and the list goes on. Shipping to consumers from a central-warehouse is logistically different and expecting the same margins is a legacy phenomenon. Had I not worked at a dotcom, I would not be able to speak to these issues. Of course the basics of retailing still exist: Acquisition, Conversion, Retention, but they can be managed from one central location. This is my 2-cents.
The other aspect of the lower-price drive has been to compromise the quality of fabrications and components to increase margins and provide lower entry-points from a cost perspective. Anita does not subscribe to this philosophy. The best components provide the quality experience which is not just evident at point-of-sale, but over the lifespan of the garment. In other words, quality is retroactive. To put this theory another way; Only after a garment is worn/washed numerous times and maintains the fit-integrity does one understand the value-proposition of quality.
MONJO: Do you have any additional comment on the background noise, the endless messages consumers encounter reminding them they should be spending less for their apparel (the commercials that tell them they are stupid for “paying retail;” the Amazon algorithms that encourage them to always buy from the lowest priced vendor, the endless cycle of sales and markdowns). How does a better brand prosper in this environment?
BERNSTEIN: All I can say about the secondary-market, the so-called off-price retailers, is that in years’ past they were truly safe-havens for overstock and aged merchandise. Anyone with a remedial education in the soft-goods industry now realizes this market purchases direct from brands and factories for the sole-purpose of satisfying the “perception” of off-price. It is now an industry unto itself and “factory-outlets” often exceed the brand it supposedly represents…Example: Nordstrom versus Nordstrom Rack. Rack has 100+ more doors, so the facts are evident of this trend. Also numerous trade-shows titled OFF-PRICE thrive and grow, so there is no secret to this business-model.
MONJO: How does a company “fight back”? What are the tools a company can use -- and that Anita has used -- to achieve a positive result.
BERNSTEIN: This is a timely and salient point in our evolution in the USA market. MAPP pricing is a key element for smaller vendors to survive, and the model needs to be monitored. For example there is a group in Las Vegas (Trend Nation) who watch the third-party retailers to insure pricing remains consistent within the goals of brands. We choose our partners very carefully and control distribution by policing our retailers and how they sell the Anita brand. Our reputation is largely guided by our core principles, driven by our owner, whereby we sell the best products in the world and will not compromise our values at any price, or volume-level.
MONJO: The market for Anita products in the USA seems to grow each year. Can you give an overview of what progress you have made this year?
BERNSTEIN: I would invert the premise of this question, as the Market (and its needs/wants) remains consistent, it’s the addressing of these needs that Anita does such a great job at satisfying. Anita does the hard-stuff, plain and simple. I am vocal and claim Anita passes on low-hanging-fruit many times in order to solve the difficult problems. At the same time, this philosophy creates an environment forced to excel at providing quality products.
MONJO: Sports bras have been a particular area of success. Can you talk about this part of your business and why Anita is doing well in it despite so many new entrants into the field?
BERNSTEIN: Sport has been a huge growth area for Anita on both continents!! Again, the market has always demanded more products for the hard-to-fit consumer, which is why brands are raising the bar and creating better products at competitive prices. Our forte is non-wire high-impact sport bras which do not resemble a bullet-proof vest. The challenge is to produce Active silhouettes that do not compress, but rather encapsulate the tissue. It is far easier to frame a sport-bra with a wire for support than to create and produce a soft-cup bra to function as a high-impact performance garment. Anita uses its expertise in the fashion and maternity business to design and distribute the best sport bras available today. Overall design expertise, exclusive fabrications, and quality construction result in the pinnacle supplier among the active market today.
MONJO: What has Anita done this year to increase its appeal to U.S. retailers in particular?
BERNSTEIN: The most compelling improvement has been on-time fulfillment. We consistently ship in the 90+ percentile of orders. With most retailers holding less inventory for a goal of faster turn, we are managing this to the benefit of the market, as being out-of-stock adversely affects the entire retail cycle.
Additionally, as I mentioned we do in-house molding, and in our spacer-category, we are the ONLY manufacturer offering spacer cup to H-cup. Sure, third party vendors have spacer, but we own the process internally.
MONJO: What are some of the “must have” items for retailers this year — and in the upcoming collections that you showed in August for S/S 2015?
BERNSTEIN: We have an award winning Active bra coming out in Spring 2015, our Dynamix Star which is the recipient of the Red Dot Award, which is a European award for innovation in design and technical accomplishment. Our expertise expands this style’s versatility to include on-the-body adjustability, X-back, fused moisture-wicking molded cups, as Active bras in the USA have become lifestyle bras, whereby they transcend use solely for sporting activities.
At Anita, it’s less about a proliferation of silhouettes for each selling-season and more about fit and quality. Our Nursing-line is the benchmark for the world, and regarding our post-mastectomy line, well, we are the ONLY company manufacturing our bras in-house. Enough said.
MONJO: Where are the retail prices now for the various Anita collections in the USA?
BERNSTEIN: When I arrived in 2009, our strongest category, Nursing, was retailing in the high-$70’s and 80’s. The fact that these bras are well-worth the price notwithstanding, but as I mentioned previously, the tipping point for Nursing is around $60. Therefore Anita GmbH deserves a great deal of credit for maintaining THE SAME QUALITY AND FIT with leaner pricing to satisfy the market demand. It is a challenge to remain fluid when the fit-integrity of the brand is uncompromising.
Our #1 selling Active bra retails for $70, and Rosa Faia fashion brand retails from between $60-80. Is this a great deal of money for a bra? I was raised to embrace this statement: “The bitterness of poor quality far outlasts the sweetness of low price.” In plain language, “you get what you pay for!” In no industry is this statement more appropriate than the apparel business, especially bras.
MONJO: What would you say to an American retailer considering adding Anita to their store? What advantages do you get with the brand? What can you expect as a retailer? Any success stories you want to mention?
BERNSTEIN: BODY has interviewed dozens of boutiques that name Anita as one of their best-fitting AND selling bra-lines at retail. This is no accident. The industry recognizes the strength of the Anita Brand and understands the value-proposition. Anita brings customer-satisfaction and quality of workmanship that allows the store to sell the brand with confidence. We make a broad-range of bras in five unique categories so we support women from adolescent through the mature years. This attention to the life-cycle makes the Anita brand ‘Unique’ among manufactures in this era of outsourcing and third-party suppliers. Owning the process is a daunting task and brings satisfaction when both stores AND consumers recognize what Anita brings to the market.
Regarding success stories? I can put it this way, in my five years with Anita I cannot remember a store trying the Anita brand ever claiming it was not right for their customers. Sure, we are positioned in many stores to complement the existing assortment, but our growth is organic in the way a Maternity/Nursing retailer will also stock our Active bras, because once the consumer recognizes the VALUE of Anita, why not retain her after she’s done nursing and create more sales??? That is how our brand fills the drawers of consumers and the cash-registers of retailers.
MONJO: What else can you say about the new collections?
BERNSTEIN: Part of Anita’s DNA is about perfecting the product before it comes to market, therefore we are less driven by the calendar than by the creation of quality bras. This is a challenge for Anita USA as the seasons are defined by shipping windows in a much more formal manner than in Europe, where most of Anita product is sold. That said, I am proud to represent Anita as the GM in the States, and feel pride in the complimentary products we provide to bring satisfaction to a challenging marketplace.
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