Sales of women's underwear in the US are forecast to continue to rise between now and 2008, boosted by an improving economy and an increase in demand for innovative, comfort-oriented products. Sales will continue to grow fastest for panties and shapewear, while sales of daywear will flatten says new research.

The US women's underwear market, which was worth an estimated $8.2 billion at the end of 2003, depends largely on younger and middle-aged women, as older women tend to buy less lingerie and spend less when they do.

A significant development for the mid-term future is that the largest American
Generation - the Baby Boomers - is beginning to age into their senior years. If they follow the pattern of their predecessors, Baby Boomers are far more body-conscious than their predecessors, and show an increased interest in health and fitness relative to their parents' generation.

While they may show more interest in lingerie and fashion in general, the aging of this group could result in Baby Boomers being less inclined to purchase lingerie. The upcoming generations of teen and young adult females, strong lingerie consumers, will not grow in sufficient numbers to counteract the aging of the Baby Boomers.

Fashion with comfort
In addition, manufacturers continue to develop new products that promise additional comfort, such as seamless panties and bras with gelled straps.

Sara Lee Intimates has developed a full line of comfort products, from Playtex's 18-Hour Comfort Strap and Gel Comfort Underwire products for full-figured women, and their Only You line, launched in 2001, which offers stitch-free bras. The Bali line also has gel strap bras.

Other manufacturers are joining in: Jockey offers seamless panties under the No Panty Line brand, and all the major companies are developing products with seamless offerings and cotton/Lycra blends for added comfort and support.

Full-figured products increasing in importance
While apparel sales are almost uniformly down, one segment that is seeing growth is in full-figured apparel. Lingerie is no exception. While a small part (6 per cent) of the women's underwear market, shapewear has grown as Americans in general continue to gain weight while fashions continue to be form-fitting.

Even women who do not have a weight problem seek out shapewear to smooth their contours for wearing tight clothing. As American lifestyles and eating habits continue to contribute to larger sizes of consumers and the clothing they wear, plus-size shoppers are expecting to have more stylish and comfortable products in their own sizes.

Falling sales of lingerie mirror other apparel markets
Until the year 2000, the US lingerie market enjoyed strong growth on an annual basis. However, the declining economy has had an impact on apparel overall, and lingerie has felt the effects as well, with sales decreasing each year since 2000, a trend expected to continue at least through 2005.

Total sales of apparel in the US in 2002 fell 2 per cent from 2001, and down 7 per cent compared with 2000. In women's apparel, sales declined 6 per cent between 2001 and 2002, and 13 per cent since 2000.

Bras and panties dominate
The necessity of lingerie is demonstrated in its most basic products, bras and panties, making up 83 per cent of the market. Bras account for 57 per cent of the market, in part because of their higher unit cost.

All segments have lost dollar sales since 2000, with the exception of shapewear, which has seen modest gains.

The major suppliers
The top suppliers of women's underwear include some highly recognisable brand names: SaraLee Intimates, VF Corp, Jockey International, Fruit of the Loom, Maidenform, Warnaco, and Limited Brands, owner of Victoria's Secret and the Limited stores.

The fact that half of the majors are private companies and that for each only a proportion of sales are underwear renders accurate comparison between the players impossible.

However, brands like Fruit of the Loom are sold primarily to discounters and mass merchandisers, or lower-priced chains including Kohl's and Sears; brands including Vanity Fair and Maidenform do not sell to discounters, appearing primarily in department stores and chains, while Limited Brands sells strictly through its own specialty retail channels.

Mass merchandisers lead the sales
Just as mass merchandisers continue to gain market share in a wide variety of consumer products, they have already come to lead the women's underwear market. Convenience plays a role with the large box stores offering one-stop shopping for a variety of needs, although highly competitive pricing is also key to their success in this market.

Mass merchandisers like Target are offering designer products at lower prices, giving consumers even more incentive to buy lingerie at these outlets. Department stores hold second place in terms of market share, matching needs not addressed by mass merchandisers: wider variety of merchandise, more high-end products, and more likelihood of trained staff to assist with selection and sizing.

Women and underwear purchasing
The majority of female respondents to Mintel's exclusive consumer research say they had purchased bras and panties in the previous 12 months - it is clear there are people willing to shop for their products. The primary reason for the purchase was having found a sale or promotion.

As the lingerie market faces stiff competition from mass merchandisers, national chains and discounters, even department stores offer frequent sales to entice the bargain-minded consumer into the lingerie department.

Slow progress in the future
Key trends impacting the future of sales of women's underwear are: numbers of women, age, attitudes towards pricing and discretionary spend.

As Baby Boomers age past their prime lingerie-buying years, it would appear that the underwear market may well be less likely to be able to make any quick recovery from the declines since 2000.

Expert Analysis

The US Women's Underwear Market 2003

The U.S. women's underwear market, like most other apparel markets, has seen sales decline as the economy began to soften in 2000. Even though lingerie is a necessity, consumers are more and more likely to wait for a sale or are turning to discount stores and mass merchandisers for lower priced goods. Find out more here.

 

Younger consumers will continue to come into the primary ages for wanting lingerie, but their numbers are not strong enough to offset the Baby Boomers. However, as Americans continue to gain weight, there is potential for growth in the full-figured segment.

Increasing price-consciousness will continue to drive women to those outlets serving that aspect, and the industry is likely to struggle to increase unit sales value in the absence of a significant turnaround in consumer attitudes towards discretionary spending.

The future
Mintel expects that retail sales of women's underwear will rise faster in 2004-08 than in 1998-2003, with steady growth throughout the forecast period. An improving economy and an increase in demand for innovative, comfort-oriented products will be a significant factor.

In 2001-03, manufacturers have been successful in creating new functionality and comfort-oriented designs that appear to have made more women see underwear as meeting the needs of fashion and function.

This trend is expected to continue in the near-term, as more women demand comfort and fashion from their underwear. Sales will continue to grow fastest for panties and shapewear, while sales of daywear will flatten.

For more information on Mintel's report on the US women's underwear market, click here.