Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK--Women's apparel, a rookie category in some sporting goods stores, posted double-digit gains for spring in key stores around the country and is expected to become a bigger player in the months ahead.
With message T-shirts and branded outfits spurring business, retailers said women are responding to items designed exclusively for them.
Unlike men, many female shoppers prefer to buy coordinating ensembles, according to several retailers.
T-shirts "with attitude" are popular at the Finish Line, a 200-store franchise based in Indianapolis, according to Barbara Ward, general merchandise manager.
A $16 Nike T-shirt with the message "In the animal kingdom females are predators and males wear pretty colors" on the front, and "Deal with it" on the back is a bestseller among women from the late teens to the early 30s, she said.
More than 5,000 units of the T-shirts have been sold since January, said Ward, adding, "It's definitely the attitude--not the T-shirt."
She said she asked Nike to recolor the T-shirts in pine green, navy, red and other "athletic colors" since it was initially offered only in pastels.
"I think athletic vendors don't quite get the women's business. Many of them offer pastels, and most women don't want that," she said. "This is probably the first time we've offered a product that is truly directed at women. A man is not going to wear those T-shirts."
T-shirts favoring male-bashing and featuring stick figures Dick and Jane by Hanover Sport, a Waltham, Mass., manufacturer, are also popular items at $16, Ward said. A shirt that says, "See Dick ask Jane for coffee. See Jane bring Dick the coffee maker," is doing well at retail, she said.
Verbiage T-shirts are also bestsellers at Foot Action, a Dallas-based 450-unit operation, where women's apparel sales are running 20 percent ahead of last year and a 40 percent gain is planned for fall, according to Eric Luthro, director of apparel and accessories buying.
Nike's message T-shirts at $16, crinkled nylon shorts at $20 and nylon mesh shorts at $25 are spurring sales, he said. At Foot Action, Nike's sales nearly double Fila's and Reebok's, Luthro said.
Tennis skirts by Nike at $35 and Fila at $45 are also booking well.
Women's apparel sales should continue to increase, since women prefer to buy outfits and manufacturers such as Adidas are offering more of them, Luthro said.
"We're making a serious commitment to increase our women's business. As brands continue to strengthen, that will naturally create more interest in those brands in our stores," he added. "A big part of our challenge is to educate the consumer that we're in the business."
With most women purchasing "hook-ups"--head-to-toe outfits from one brand--Lady Foot Locker, a 600-store franchise, has seen double-digit percentage gains compared with a year ago, according to Hilary Chasin, vice president of retail and brand director. The look works because most women have limited time to shop and they prefer traditional athletic wear, she said.
The trend took off in urban markets 18 months ago and spread into sparsely populated markets in early March, when Lady Foot Locker introduced Fila's Grant Hill sneakers for women as well as in boys' sizes, Chasin said. To spotlight hook-ups, Fila merchandises apparel and footwear together. Fila's nylon wind jacket at $77 and coordinating nylon pants at $39 and Nike's nylon jacket at $68 and coordinating pants at $38 are bestsellers.
Guess Athletic's cotton thermal textured shorts at $30, pants at $30 and shirts at $30 are also popular items, Chasin said.
Increased participation and greater publicity for women's sports--especially basketball, beach volleyball and women's soccer--have enhanced women's athletic wear sales and are "creating momentum in the industry."
Message T-shirts are drumming up sales at Oshman's Sporting Goods, a 132-unit franchise based in Houston, according to Jacqui Loughry, assistant buyer. Nike's $18 T-shirt that reads, "I am woman. Watch me score," is the most popular style, she said.
"Anything we put on the floor by Nike sells. It started getting hot with men's about a year ago and it trickled into the women's business three months ago," Loughry said. "It's exciting that more manufacturers are designing for women. It used to be that we had to pick through whatever merchandise the men's buyer didn't buy."
Women's apparel sales are 10 percent ahead of last year and a comparable gain is planned for fall, she said.
To build on the women's business, Oshman's will begin selling junior activewear and volleyball apparel at the end of August.
"The customer is there. She's just been shopping in the men's department," Loughry said. Marika's power lifter sport bra at $25 and bike shorts at $17 have also been booking well at Oshman's.
With retail prices ranging from $35 to $50, nylon and Lycra spandex crossback swimsuits by Speedo Authentic Fitness and TYR are "hot as a pistol" at Herman's World of Sporting Goods, a 115-store chain based in Cartaret, N.J., according to John Hoeffler, buyer for men's and women's activewear.
While swimwear sales are traditionally strong during this time of the year, the business has seen a double-digit increase compared with a year ago, he said. To stimulate multiple swimwear sales in the months ahead, Herman's plans to unveil small cruise shops in 55 of its mall stores, Hoeffler said.
Herman's sport bra business has seen a triple-digit increase compared with a year ago, he said. Many women purchase Authentic Fitness's bra top at $20 with bike shorts at $20. Champion's jog bra at $30 and shorts at $27 are very popular. "I've been buying for women at Herman's for the past three years, but it's never been this exciting," Hoeffler said. "The market is offering more options. Our constant challenge has been to get manufacturers out of the box in the women's business. Until now, most haven't made a serious attempt. That will change for spring 1996."

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