By  on April 20, 2006

NEW YORK — The Paiva retail concept from Finish Line that bowed last week is part of a growing trend of athletic specialty stores for women.

A number of other concepts, including LuluLemon Athletica, Lucy Activewear, NikeWomen and health club chain Equinox Fitness, all are rapidly opening stores to tap into a customer who wants upscale and directional athletic merchandise.

These stores are offering a fresh approach to selling women's athleticwear, which for many years was treated as an offshoot of men's wear, without a separate retail environment.

"This customer has been vastly underserved by the sporting goods industry," said Matt Powell, an athletic industry analyst with Princeton Retail Analysis. "There is a lot of room for growth in this sector."

Sales of women's sports apparel grew 10.8 percent to $17.4 billion in 2004, the latest annual figures available, according to information from the NPD Group and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

A key reason for the uptick in women's concepts is that female participation in sports has been rising rapidly, said an SGMA spokesman.

"The sport marketplace for years always catered to men," he said. "What we have seen more recently is the rise of more competitive female athletes who have money and whose desire to win and excel is no different than men's. Companies that cater to these women will benefit. The market is ready for these retail concepts. It is a sign that the marketplace is catering to the needs of female athletes."

Finish Line has been a leader in catering to women with its Lady Foot Locker concept, although those stores are geared to teens and young women, and haven't offered much in the way of upscale fashion-forward items.

Industry watchers expect more concepts to come.

"We will see more of this done by different retailers," said John Shanley, an analyst with Susquehanna Research Group.

Shanley noted that The Sports Authority and Dick's Sporting Goods are starting to create more feminine concepts in their stores since women tend to buy merchandise for their husbands and children.

"There is still a big learning curve for these [traditional chains] as they figure out how to do it," Shanley noted.

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