By  on January 26, 1994

NEW YORK -- The race for functional sports apparel has tightened, with department stores and mass merchants edging out sporting goods specialty stores for market share.

Active-use sports apparel, which until a few years ago was restricted to sporting goods specialty shops, gained ground among department stores in recent years, accounting for some 19.7 percent of sales in 1992, the most recent year for which data is available from the Sporting Goods Marketing Association. Mass merchants tallied even more, nabbing 26.9 percent in 1992, while sports stores raked in 16 percent of the active apparel market.

The ride might get bumpy for department stores, however.

Observers say active apparel could go the way of products like consumer electronics -- to category killing chains, such as Sports Authority, or to discounters, like Wal-Mart or Kmart.

"The trend is toward bigger, full-service sporting goods retailers," said Mike May, marketing director of SGMA. He cited superstore or warehouse concepts from such retailers as Oshman's Supersports USA, which is converting its small stores to large formats; Sports Authority, Kmart Corp.'s sports warehouse, and Sports Town, which also features megastores. At these large venues, often outfitted with basketball or tennis courts, golf and/or archery ranges, consumers can test equipment before plunking down their credit cards.

"In light of this trend, I think we'll see two major retail categories emerging -- the giant sports specialist and the mass merchant -- where people can buy equipment and apparel at the same time. Department stores look like they might be squeezed out, unless they come up with a different angle," May said.

Observers note that specialty sporting goods chains, including Champs Sports, Bradenton, Fla., and MVP Sports Stores, Wilmington, Mass., are devoting more space to women's sports apparel, but results are mixed at department stores.

While some, like Macy's East, Dayton Hudson, J.C. Penney and Federated Department Stores, are adding in-store shops, vendors complain that many department stores still relegate the category to a corner squished between hosiery and hats.

"To many department stores, sporting goods apparel is still a second-class citizen," bemoaned Glen Greenbaum, vice president of sales at Danskin, here, who believes it needs to have a 12-month home. The problem, he explained, is that usually the category shrinks or even disappears from October through December to make room for accessories like slippers, hats and scarves.

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