The future of the women's sleepwear market looks much like the present - more imports, more private label goods, more celebrity licensing deals - says new research. It adds that companies that manufacture women's sleepwear need not only to differentiate their products from the competition but also from rival uses, like daywear.

The women's sleepwear market struggled from 1999-2004 to maintain sales levels, let alone grow. It peaked early in the period, and although it has made some gain from the low of $3.7 billion in 2002, it still has not recovered to earlier levels of around $4 billion.

A soft economy and lower consumer confidence - both factors that are affecting women's apparel sales in general - are partly to blame says research firm Mintel International.

Its latest report on the US Women's Sleepwear market adds that competition for retail space is also fierce, and that manufacturers of branded women's sleepwear are increasingly competing against lower-cost private label and imported women's sleepwear as well.

Tweens, teens, and younger women
Although teen and tween females aged 12-17 spend a lot of their money on clothing in general, they are less likely to buy sleepwear than their older counterparts.

But it would pay for manufacturers and retailers to court these younger consumers, nevertheless. Not only are they interested in buying clothes, but the population of 10-14 year old females is projected to grow by about 4 per cent from 1998-2008, and those aged 15-19 by almost 12 per cent.

Population projections also bode well for the 20-24 year old female market, which is predicted to grow by 16 per cent from 1998-2008.

Mature women
The biggest population gains from 1998-2008 will be in women aged 55+; the number of women aged 55-59 will see an increase of 46 per cent according to Mintel's report. For this older group comfort might take a front seat to fashion, but fashion should not be disregarded.

Full-figured women
Full-figured women represent another set of difficulties for manufacturers and retailers - but also another set of opportunities. Plus-sized women, like all women, want to be able to buy fashionable, sexy, flattering sleepwear, but selection and availability in mainstream channels is more limited for these consumers.

Specialty stores help to fill the niche, but overall there is a plus-sized opportunity for women's sleepwear sales to this group.

A crowd of companies in a limited space
Companies competing in the women's sleepwear industry run the gamut in terms of size, from mega-corporations like Sara Lee to small private companies like KN Ltd.

While it is partly true that the larger firms find more opportunity in the mass market, and the smaller and mid-sized ones compete more in specialty and department stores, it is an oversimplification to think this is the only story.

Sara Lee Direct Sales, for instance, has its own specialty lingerie stores called Inner Self, selling higher-priced goods than its mainstream brands like Hanes.

Many mid-sized companies, like Kellwood Company, provide private label to department stores and national chains; and some department stores view luxury offerings like Josie by Natori as a way to differentiate themselves from other retail channels.

Marketing and celebrity appeal
Most advertising of women's sleepwear is fairly standard, including point-of-sale and in-store promotions and magazine advertising.

Licensing female celebrities is increasingly prevalent in women's intimate apparel. Retailers want exclusives to differentiate their products from other retailers, and celebrities want exclusives to guarantee and expand their sales audience.

Designers are other popular licensing targets, lending cache to a company brand and in return hoping to get an expanded sales base.

In any event, the trend shows no sign of slowing anytime soon, as celebrities and designers alike continue to seek licensing deals and manufacturers continue to pursue the same.

Retail tribulation
Mass merchandisers, department stores, chain stores, specialty stores, catalogues, the web - all are sales venues for women's sleepwear.

Mass merchandisers hold the biggest piece of the women's sleepwear pie, and it is increasing, with more fashionable offerings helping sales. Also helping are exclusive brand deals like the Wal-Mart/Sara Lee collaboration with Hanes Her Way Sleepwear.

Specialty stores are also growing their share of the women's sleepwear market, with sales moving through lingerie shops and women's specialty apparel stores targeting teens and Baby Boomers (aged 40-58 in 2004).

A new generation of specialty stores is appearing as well. Chico's is leveraging its expertise in the 30+ women's apparel segment with its specialty lingerie store Soma; and Sara Lee has created a brand/specialty store Inner Self for its own "women's lifestyle" products, including sleepwear.

More than 11 per cent of women's sleepwear was sold through "other" channels in 2004, like the Internet, mail order, and other non-traditional outlets. E-commerce offers hope to women such as those who take larger sizes and have a hard time finding appealing sleepwear in the mainstream.

What women want
Comfort seems to be the primary concern cited for buying sleepwear by 82 per cent of women surveyed for Mintel's report - which is not too surprising given the principal function of the apparel.

Only 8 per cent said price was their main concern, while luxury and fashion were of primary appeal to only 6 per cent of those women who bought sleepwear.

Mintel also found that what women report sleeping in is directly tied to age. Younger women are more comfortable with pyjamas, T-shirts and sweats, and even just underwear, than are older women, who prefer more traditional nightgowns.

Predicting the future
The future of the women's sleepwear market looks much like the present - more imports, more private label goods, more celebrity licensing deals.

The problem of lacklustre sleepwear sales is probably not primarily one of the design or implementation says Mintel. Instead, companies who manufacture women's sleepwear need not only to differentiate their products from the competition but also to differentiate its use from competing uses, like daywear.

Overall, Mintel expects sales for the women's sleepwear market to decline by 6 per cent through 2009 (a drop of 17 per cent at constant prices) as lower price private label products and inexpensive Chinese imports compete for a limited amount of retail space.

For more information on Mintel's report on the US Women's Sleepwear market click here