By and  on December 27, 2001

NEW YORK -- Activewear saw limited action this holiday season.

There wasn't the usual flood of panicked shoppers picking up sure-bet presents of basic sports apparel, specialty retailers said, resulting in slower store traffic and decreased sales compared to last year. Two factors came into play, they said: More parents gave their teenagers cash instead of buying athletic-oriented presents, and hesitant consumers kept purchases down due to the unsteady economy and ongoing war.

Instead of the week before Christmas being the last mad dash for holiday shopping, several stores said business was flat and must-have items were scarce. Many holiday shoppers who were making purchases were buying items for themselves, not for gift giving.

Jackie Booker, buyer for Dr. Jay's Ladies, a fashion-forward chain based here, said, "A lot of parents are giving their kids cash. You can also see people's hesitation at the cash registers. With everything that's going on, you're seeing a lot more hesitation."

Dr. Jay's Ladies extended its holiday business hours by opening a half hour early and closing an hour later, at 8:30 p.m. Logo-driven T-shirts and sweaters from DKNY and Polo Ralph Lauren rang up sales, Booker said. Shirts ranged from $25 to $42 and sweaters from $48 to $68.

Baby Phat's down coats and leather jackets were "by far" the best-selling outerwear label, Booker said. Shoppers were also interested in Steve Madden's bubble coats, even though his footwear is not in demand at Dr. Jay's. Most women opted to buy coats in the $150 to $200 price range instead of $300 like last year, Booker said.

Holiday sales are ahead of last year at Equinox Energywear, an 11-unit operation, where many shoppers are buying items for themselves, as well as holiday gifts. The average purchase was $150 for an outfit, with Blue Marlin, Miss Vintage, Maja DeLemma and Joya being key labels, said Fran Errico, national buyer.

Low-waisted velour pants, sweatshirts imprinted with "New York" and a tie-dye shirt with a flag motif and slit sleeves were among the best-selling items. The latter generated sales of 24 units in less than two days, despite a $74 price tag, Errico said.With 98 percent of Energywear's merchandise retailing for less than $98, it has enticed shoppers to buy for themselves and to return to the shops on a regular basis, she said. Errico attributed the interest in casual, athletic-inspired styles to the country's nesting mood.

"People are staying close to home and they want to feel comfortable," she said. "They're feeling safer in their own neighborhoods, especially in the city. Anything that says New York is selling."

Many shoppers at NikeTown New York were also looking for activewear items they can wear on the street. A $24 T-shirt with "Goddess" written in rhinestones, $40 yoga pants, a $150 PrimaLoft sweater and $58 DriFIT workout pants with hidden pockets and other special features were standouts this season.

"All retailers have experienced some fallout from the events of Sept. 11, but things are not as bad as we expected," a spokesman said. "We're still selling OK."

Niketown, located on East 57th near Tiffany, continues to reel in a steady flow of tourists. In addition, locals know to visit the store for hard-to-find items like the Goddess T-shirt that are not offered in athletic-specialty stores, the spokesman said.

Sally Duffley, apparel buyer at Ski Market, a specialty chain with 25 stores in the Northeast, said sales have been "good" since this year's first snowfall in Boston on Dec. 7. Women are buying "windproof, waterproof, technical jackets with a feminine flair," in the $180 to $220 range, she said.

The chain's business was so good last year that many women couldn't find what they wanted and that's why they're shopping this year, Duffley explained.

Nils and Obermeyer are popular for snowboard jackets, and Marmot, The North Face and Ski Market's private label were hot for fleece, Duffley said. Unlike previous years where muted tones were the rave, this season women want prettier colors like cornflower blue, celadon, sage, turquoise and jewel tones.

Dale of Norway's $200 heavyweight ski sweaters were also standouts, and the brand's Olympic-inspired styles are expected to become more popular as the Winter Games approach.

At Blades Board & Skate, a 15-unit specialty store chain, outerwear was "pretty rough," but snowboarding apparel is "doing well," according to Evan Josloff, senior buyer."It really hasn't been cold enough to force people to buy," he said. "We're not hitting plan by any stretch. But we've had a pretty good solid week and we hope to make up a lot of ground."

Burton, Bonfire, 686 and Roxy were among the strong sellers at Blades. The fact that "cleaner," less-technical jackets were in demand indicates that shoppers are buying them to wear on the street instead of on the mountain.

"Last year at this time we had some snow," Josloff said. "People need to see it in front of their faces."

Thanks to a cold snap in December, sales of women's activewear on the West Coast began to heat up, after dismal sales during the previous month, retailers said.

Sport Chalet, operating 26 stores in California and Nevada, said more women were buying for themselves rather than for others this holiday season. The hottest sellers were yoga pants, fleece sweaters and workout capris.

"True bodywear and activewear is very slow," noted Linda Obermeyer, division merchandise manager of apparel and footwear for the Los Angeles-based chain. "Anything that's comfortable, such as lounge-lizard pants, workout pants with a drawstring waistband and workout pants with a boot-cut look or low-rider waistband, are selling. The customer is buying less of the tighter-fitting workout bras and tanks. Overall, shorts are not selling."

Obermeyer described sales during the month of November as "fairly tough." After Sept. 11, the customer has been increasingly aware of value. A lower-priced brand such as Everlast was the first brand to pick up sales after the terrorist attacks, said Obermeyer.

Post-Thanksgiving, Sport Chalet began selling more expensive brands such as Nike and Adidas. As for holiday sales, "I would have expected it to be a little worse," said Obermeyer. "It's not horrible, but it's not excellent."

Damon Richards, co-owner of Val Surf, with five locations in Southern California, agreed that business was picking up. He said, "It's pretty promising right now."

As with Sport Chalet, more women appeared to be buying for themselves rather than for others, and were gravitating toward three brands: Volcom, Stussy and Paul Frank.Long cardigans with hoodies, pajamas, biker-style jackets, and fleece track-style sweatsuits were the top silhouettes. TV, MTV, and music continue to be the main influences for what Val Surf's young customers buy, Richards said.

To keep the buzz going, once every week valsurf.com has been blasting e-mails to its customers primarily promoting hard goods, such as snowboards.

"We've been really lucky," said Richards. "The weather [in the mountains] has been really solid. Everyone in the industry is starting to relax a little more. I can't imagine business being over last year. But hopefully, we'll come close."

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