Bodynits gains in leotard war

leotard
Lynn Tan, right and modelling the latest creations: the company has already captured 25% of the local market.

Five Singaporean sisters, the Tans, are cashing in on the aerobic craze with their new brand of low price leotard. Sid Astbury interviewed them and looked at their competitors.

Leotards are selling like hot cakes at the Dance Centre of Singapore. ‘We’ve already sold 30 today and it’s only three o’clock,’ said a sales assistant at the city state’s largest retailer of dance costumes. ‘ A woman came in earlier, an Indonesian, and bought S$500 worth at one go.’ With women in Singapore and throughout the region in hot pursuit of fitness and body beauty, outlets like the Dance Centre are doing a roaring trade in high fashion ‘sweat’ suits.

The Dance Centre prides itself on exclusiveness and only stocks leading foreign brands like Bloch, Carushka and Roberto. The retailer does not, however, carry leotards made by a Singapore manufacturer known as Bodynits. Fortunately for Bodynits, other Singapore outlets and their customers cannot afford to be that choosey. By pricing competitively and marketing aggressively, the company has won around 25% of the local market for leotards, and a significant presence in the Malaysian and Indonesian markets as well.

Bodynits is managed by five sisters and is an offshoot of a lingerie store their parents started in the 1970s. Explained Yinn Tan, the sister who handles advertising and promotions: ‘The store could not keep pace with demand for leotards when the aerobics craze hit in 1982 and we saw an opportunity to manufacture ourselves.’ By chance, the Tan sisters met an American experienced in the design of leotards and she gave them a crash course. The Tan parents agreed to provide S$150,000 in seed money. Bodynits was born.

In 1984, the first full year of production, Bodynits posted sales of S$600,000. This year the company is expecting revenues to reach S$850,000, some 30% of which will come from exports to Malaysia and Indonesia. Next year, when further markets will be opened and the Bodynits range of products extended, revenues should rise to nearly S$2 million. The average Bodynits leotard sells for S$30 – about half the price of imported designer labels – and the profit margin for Bodynits is between 20% and 25%. Accessories like headbands and pullovers, shorts and tights, carry higher profit margins and are an increasingly important segment of the Bodynits range.

The basic formula for success is simple: a product of a quality similar to leading imported brands, but at a price the average Singaporean can afford. The Tan sisters have added refinements that give their product particular local appeal. Explained by Lynn Tan, the sister in charge of Bodynits (the other sisters handle production, accounts and general administration): ‘Our strong point is that we design for the Asian figure and not the western figure. We have more colours, more style and are less revealing.’ Tom Rao of Her World, one of Singapore’s leading women’s magazines, agreed with Lynn’s assessment. Said Rao: ‘Women here are very fashion conscious.’

Taking risks; being lucky
Design is indeed one of Bodynits strongest suits. Rather than employ a team of in-house designers, the firm accepts designs from anyone who cares to submit them. Said Lynn: ‘That way we get designs from women who are dancers themselves. They have a feel for the local market and for requirements like ease of movement.’ New designs are produced every three months and brochures sent to all Bodynits outlets. Orders are fulfilled on a sale or return basis. Said Lynn: ‘We knew the sale or return arrangement was risky, but we have been lucky and hardly any have ever been returned.’

Though progress so far has been sure-footed, Bodynits has exhausted the right of the firstborn and is now contending with companies cast in its own image. There are cheaper brands on the market and there is fierce discounting at shops specializing in foreign brands. Pirated versions of Bodynits designs are appearing. Worst of all, there are signs that aerobics will go the way of the skateboard.

To ensure there is life after leotards, Bodynits is diversifying into other garment lines it can feed into its superslick distribution channels. The company is spending heavily on advertising and linking up with other manufacturers for joint marketing exercises. A recent joint sally was with a producer of diet cola. Said Lynn: ‘We believe that with a good name and a good image we can expand into other types of leisure wear.’

Bodynits has no intention of forsaking leotards and is now honing strategies that should keep it ahead of the pack. To make sure Bodynits is not squeezed at the lower end of the market, there will be a budget range of leotards. ‘We need to do something for those with limited budgets and for the first time user,’ said Lynn. A more ambitious gambit is the impending move upmarket with a designer-label range aimed at the upper crust locals and the foreign market. The new label will compete head on with name brand imports.

But perhaps the most serious challenges will be internal rather than external. Bodynits has yet to come to terms with its own success. The sisters are contemplating a restructuring that will include a graduation from the current partnership format to limited liability status. Part of that restructuring would mean a firm delineation of lines of responsibility and of the profit sharing arrangement. Just how well the present sisterly relationship will stand up to the trials and tribulations of consolidation remains to be seen.

Source: As published in Asian Business Magazine