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THE TOUGHEST SELL : Women Hate to Buy Swimsuits, So Firms Try New Tack

August 17, 1988|DENISE GELLENE | Times Staff Writer

From an office in the Los Angeles Mart, fittingly decorated with prints of shapely women in flashy swimsuits, Warren S. Gaudineer quietly directs a subtle drive to revive the nation's swimwear business.

For Gaudineer, it is no easy task. A $50,000 study on his desk shows women simply hate to buy swimsuits, and hate even more the skimpy suits with low backs and plunging necklines that seem to dominate most swimwear shops. Even Gaudineer's 90-year-old mother-in-law left a department store in disgust to go home and sew her own suit.

There must be more women like his mother-in-law, Gaudineer reasons. "There is a large group of women who are being overlooked."

A chain-smoking salesman for chemical giant Du Pont, Gaudineer seems an unlikely choice for the job. Gaudineer doesn't know a thing about retailing, and his employer, Du Pont, doesn't make swimsuits.

Yet Du Pont is keenly interested in swimsuit sales. That is because the company makes Lycra, a special elastic fiber that is woven into nearly every women's swimsuit. For Gaudineer, the mathematics is child's play. The more swimsuits women buy, the more Lycra Du Pont sells.

That simple calculation has helped forge an unusual, 2-year-old alliance between the nation's swimwear makers and their fabric supplier, Du Pont, in a quiet campaign to get women into new swimsuits. At Gaudineer's suggestion, the swimwear manufacturers formed a industry association--called SWIM--that has spent thousands of dollars on surveys to figure out what kinds of swimsuits women want.

Beyond that, swimwear makers dished out more than $100,000 this year to train and help pay the salaries of "swimsuit specialists" in eight department store chains throughout the nation. The swimwear manufacturers hope to convince retailers that customers will buy more swimsuits if they receive personal attention.

At the same time, Du Pont itself has spent around $100,000 creating training kits for department store sales clerks that include pin-up posters for fitting rooms and a 19-minute videotape that tells clerks how to sell swimsuits.

Millions of dollars are at stake. Right now, American women cling to their old swimsuits for three years before buying a new one. By persuading women to buy new suits more often, the $800-million swimsuit industry could explode. It's enough to make your head swim. "This could be a $2-billion industry," said Al Zindel, a vice president with Jantzen Inc., the nation's largest swimwear maker.

That's a lot of Lycra. In fact, its probably much more than Du Pont can spin out of its mills, located in the United States and overseas. But even a modest increase in swimsuit sales would be welcomed by Gaudineer, who promised his bosses back at Du Pont's headquarters in Wilmington, Del., that he could expand the swimwear business by 25% before he retires three years from now.

What that requires is nothing less than a revolution in the way swimwear is sold. For years, department stores have viewed swimsuits as a seasonal item that sells briskly only when the price is slashed. Unwilling to pour resources into swim boutiques, department stores counted on "fit specialists" from swimwear companies to help sell suits.

"We've had videos and seminars, and worked in the fitting rooms," said Pamela Andrea, sales vice president for swimwear maker Rose Marie Reid Inc. "We've been holding the hands of department stores for years."

Now, swimwear manufacturers, and Du Pont, are showing retailers how to sell swimsuits themselves. In intensive training sessions, swimwear makers are showing sales clerks the fine distinction between such styles as the Hollywood leg and the French leg. They are also showing retailers how to make dreary fitting rooms more comfortable.

Stripping a Factor

For the most part, retail executives don't mind the unsolicited advice. "We'll take whatever help we get," said Eva Holzafel, a swimwear buyer for Sears, Roebuck & Co. who handed out 900 Du Pont sales kits to department managers in Sears stores this spring. "A swimsuit is a tough garment to sell."

After all, says Milton Brandt, a Michigan fashion consultant who did market research for SWIM, "When else do you have to strip naked to buy something?"

Some merchants have tried fashion shows or unusual store displays to make the experience less painful. At the May Co. store in Palm Desert, thin models in stylish swimsuits pranced along a stage decorated with palm trees, sun chairs and beach blankets as Beach Boys music blared, all to "create a summer mood," a sales clerk explained.

G. Foxx, a Hartford, Conn. department store chain, arranged its swimsuits on racks under signs that say "Big Bust" or "Short Torso" or "Wide Hips" in an attempt to help women find the right suit. Explains swimwear buyer Susan Chamberlain: "We group suits according to--I don't want to say problem--a woman's shape."

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