NEW YORK — Finish Line Inc. ran up hefty increases in first-quarter sales and profits as apparel grew in importance to the footwear-focused retailer.

Net income shot up 77.9 percent to $6.5 million, or 28 cents a diluted share, from $3.7 million, or 15 cents, a year ago.

Sales for the 13 weeks ended May 31 climbed 21.8 percent to $207.8 million from $170.6 million a year ago. Comparable-store sales advanced 14 percent.

Footwear comps rose 10 percent while same-store sales for apparel and accessories leaped 37 percent.

Soft goods accounted for 22 to 23 percent of the Finish Line’s business during the quarter, or as much as $47.8 million, up from 20 percent during the previous fiscal year.

“Apparel is being driven by licensed [merchandise],” said president and chief executive Alan Cohen in a statement.

The licensed business is on track to make up as much as 60 percent of the firm’s total apparel business, a larger portion than initially planned, he said. Private label and branded apparel each comprise 20 percent of Finish Line’s apparel trade.

“There are a lot of different things going on in licensed and it’s not just all of us going back after the same thing season after season after season,” said Cohen. “We’re approaching it much more from a fashion perspective. Obviously, it’s a team business and there’s a fan base there, but also there’s a lot of fashion involved in license now that didn’t exist to this degree.”

From college and professional sports to retro merchandise, Cohen added, “A lot of different things are working.”

“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of opportunity in women’s in licensed,” he noted. “This is something that never really existed before, but we’re having some success with some of the women’s licensed product that we’re bringing in and we think that’s going to continue.”

Branded apparel is not performing as well as the firm would like, though private label’s seen success in basics.

On the larger, footwear side of the business, Cohen said Finish Line could have more than 50 percent of its product differentiated from its primary competition in the mall.“Things have dramatically changed because of what Nike is doing with their new distribution policy in the U.S. and probably changed from our perspective in the most important way,” he said. “We’re talking about certainly launch product, statement product and elite product and that’s, for the most part, the high-end product — especially programs like Shox. There just aren’t that many points of distribution going forward in the mall in that kind of product.”

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