Swimwear industry 'on fire' as Instagram's year-round summers fill feeds with string bikinis and exotic beach posts

Key Points
  • Swimwear sales at American Eagle Outfitters' Aeire brand have more than doubled in the last two years.
  • U.S. swimwear sales have been growing at an annualized growth rate of 10 percent in the first few months of this year, up from an average of 3.2 percent from 2010 through 2017.
  • Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Fran Horowitz said Instagram has created a dialogue between the company and its customers.
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It took less than two weeks for Aerie's pink super scoop one piece swimsuit with the "high cut cheekier booty" to sell out after British model Iskra Lawrence posted a photo of herself in it to her millions of Instagram followers.

"Back in NYC & missing the sun," Lawrence wrote on the March 2017 post, punctuating her comment with the sun emoji. "Still way too obsessed with this @aerie #onepiece tho."

The super scoop, described on Aerie's website as "comfy, cute and designed with the right amount of scoop," remains one of the brand's hottest selling suits. Marketing executives at Aerie, which is owned by American Eagle Outfitters, say they can trace its dramatic spike in sales back to that specific posting.

Swimsuit sales have taken off in recent years, and not just during the summer. Instagram is an increasingly effective way for retailers to showcase, and sell, their latest trends. The photo-sharing platform provides users with a casual, playful forum to display their best beach shots hashtagged with whatever kind of #vibe they're feeling or #inspirationalquote they want to share.

The platform now has 1 billion monthly active users, up from 800 million users in September 2017, the company said in June. Digital sales have become one of the fastest-growing segments in retail, and a lot of those purchases are increasingly being generated directly from Instagram, executives said.

U.S. retail sales of swimwear were approximately $3.6 billion when Instagram launched in 2010. They rose to $4.6 billion last year — for an average annual growth rate of about 3.2 percent, according to the NPD Group's Consumer Tracking Service. The pace of growth has dramatically picked up just in the last few months with U.S. swimwear sales growing at an average annualized rate of 10 percent through May, the latest data available, according to the NPD.

Marketing executives and analysts say social media is increasingly fueling purchases, especially during the off-season when swimwear sales usually slow to a trickle. Summertime is year-round on Instagram where beach postings from Australia, South America and Africa take over news feeds when most of the U.S. is in a deep freeze. Purchases can just as easily come from a company's official account or from a customer's Instagram feed, analysts say.

"People go on vacation and they Instagram it," said Janine Stichter, an analyst at Jefferies, who also attributes the growth in swimwear to social media. "They want to have an on-trend swimsuit. Whereas it used to be something maybe you just bought one of and it didn't really matter what it looked like."

American Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch and Lululemon have taken social media advertising to the next level with teams of managers manning their accounts, each of which has more than 2.5 million Instagram followers. They've paid for celebrity endorsements and set up official brand ambassador programs for social media "influencers" that give users free swag and sometimes cash if they post photos in their clothes.

Smaller brands that have limited reach have also reaped the rewards. At Lumahai Swimwear, about 75 percent of sales traffic is generated through the company's Instagram account, according to co-founder Sofia Garreton. The California start-up has more than 23,000 followers on Instagram.

Swimwear at Aerie is "on fire," according to Jennifer Foyle, Aerie global brand president. Sales in the company's swim category have more than doubled in the last two years.

Organically driven sales on Instagram have increased 168 percent year-over-year, Foyle said.

The brands that have been the most successful in increasing sales are the ones that use social media as a tool to "elevate the level of communication" with the consumer, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor for retail at The NPD Group.

"The consumer is gravitating towards it because, frankly, where are you going to go?," Cohen said. "Unless you go to a swimwear specialty store, you're not getting service anywhere to help educate you. People rely on social media for that."

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Fran Horowitz said Instagram has created a dialogue between the company and its customers, who often post back about what they're buying. The company, including subsidiary Hollister, have had similarly successful results from Instagram. The top two posts in terms of engagement, how many likes and comments they get, over the last year, were in swim, Horowitz said.

"Both brands for both genders are double-digit comping in swim, season to date," Horowitz said

Brand ambassadors — from professional models like Lawrence to social media influencers like Julia Nell — are blowing up the swimwear industry and turning Instagram into a virtual catalog for consumers to share style ideas and search for new ones across multiple labels.

Nell's Instagram account, @jem_touchdown, is strewn with beach and pool pictures from exotic locales. A string bikini in the Icon Hotel pool in Hong Kong, a one-piece thong in the Hotel de Crillon in Paris, just the bikini bottoms (with two coconuts covering other vital parts) on the beach in Tulum, Mexico.

“This is my side gig,” she said of her Instagram account, which has more than 88,000 followers. She sometimes notes what she's wearing. One day it might be a San Lorenzo Bikini. The next she's in a Quintsoul thong. Then a top by Calvin Klein.

The Venice Beach, California app developer started chronicling her travels, which are mostly for her day job, on the site in 2011.

“Then people started contacting me,” Nell recalled, including Nike in 2013. “I realized I could get things for free.” The freebies include swimwear, dermatology appointments, discounts at hotels and anywhere from $500 to $2,500 for posting a photo on Instagram. While Nell won't specify how much each brands pays, she said the amount she saves on clothing and cosmetics by way of Instagram is "priceless."

Kristen Curtis of Chandler, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, uses her account @ipackedlite to score discounts. Companies give her between 30 percent and 50 percent off if she posts photos wearing the products.

Donna Calin, a manager at a recycling plant in Chicago, uses Instagram for ideas. She rotates between about 20 different swimsuits each season.

"I’m not stuck on any one brand. I use Instagram quite a bit for inspiration and to look at different clothing lines," said Calin, who uses the handle @blow_them_away on Instagram.

Los Angeles-based Strange Bikinis, which started using brand ambassadors in 2013, has seen growth from Instagram.

"There's also a lot more brands," said Ali Conway, who founded the company six years ago.

Designers have also rolled out more types of swimsuits, helping to further drive demand, Stichter said. In the past, women could choose between a bikini or a one piece. Now there are triangle bikinis, halter tops, high-waisted bottoms, thongs and even maternity suits, among other options. Choices in menswear have also increased.

Companies have made it easier to buy their products, providing links in their accounts that let customers shop on their phones. It also gives retailers precise data on where the purchase originated.

The fastest growing segment of Aerie’s digital business stems from mobile purchases, and they aren't all through their paid spokeswomen. Average consumers have shared almost 50,000 posts using a hashtag promoted by the company, #AerieReal, which encourages women to post unfiltered photos of themselves on social media while wearing Aerie products.

The teen retailer has embraced the positive body image movement and steered away from using traditional models. Lawrence is one of four “role models,” or paid spokeswomen, Aerie used to promote its clothing, including swimwear. Besides Lawrence, an outspoken advocate for the movement, singer Rachel Platten, actress Yara Shahidi and gold-medal gymnast Aly Raisman all represent Aerie. They have more than 9 million Instagram followers combined.

Lawrence has the most Instagram followers of the four women: 4.1 million. Her swim posts generate between 100,000 and 200,000 likes each — some nearly 400,000. Women often ask her in the comments section about what she's wearing and how it fits. Her first Aerie posting "went viral," she said, adding that she woke up to about 80,000 new followers.

Instagram is "a really wonderful way to find someone who you can relate to more and make you feel more diverse than what you might find in a magazine or online," Lawrence said. "You kind of seek out who you like and who you trust."