Byline: Karyn Monget, with contributions from Holly Haber, Dallas; Georgia Lee, Atlanta; Michael Marlow, L.A.
NEW YORK--While the cleavage-enhancers and seamless styles have been getting a lot of credit for lifting the bra business over the past year, there's a third winner as well-- the sports bra. And merchants are betting on sports bras to finish strongly again this year. The classification is a small part of total bra business, but it's growing fast. Dollar volume in sports bras increased 48.9 percent from 1991 to 1994 to reach $249.2 million last year, according to NPD Group, a consumer research firm. In 1991, according to NPD figures, sports bras accounted for 6.9 percent of the overall bra business pegged at $2.41 billion. In 1994, that share grew to 8.7 percent, figured at $2.85 billion. Retailers cite several factors as boosting sports bra business: A greater number of women are participating in a wider variety of sports. Comfort--more women are wearing sports bras for everyday wear. A growing demand for performance brands, especially crossover names from the men's field such as the Champion name combined with Jogbra. The general momentum in the bra business over the past year, ignited by the hype about the Wonderbra. Moreover, the average bosom size has increased. Many bra makers say their most popular size now is 36C, whereas a couple of years ago it was 34B. As the bosom becomes heavier, women turn to the comfort of a sports bra for support while exercising. At retail, discounters in recent years have consistently claimed the largest dollar share of the sports bra business. In 1994, according to NPD, discounters took 46 percent of the business; national chains--J.C. Penney Co., Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward--were second with a 17.6 percent share, and department stores were third, with a 12.9 percent share. However, retailers contacted across the country in various types of stores proved to be sports bra fans.
CLICKING WITH THE DISCOUNTERS At Kmart Corp., Karen Wilson, divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel, stated: "Sports bras are a major business for us, especially our Chic program, which has become very important." Wilson credited consumers' "active lifestyles" as a key reason for the boom, as well as more women wearing sports bras every day, because they are "very comfortable." At Bradlees, Braintree, Mass., Phyllis Epstein, buyer of foundations and panties, noted, "Sports bras are a strong business for us, but we are trying to differentiate ourselves from the crop tops shown in the activewear department. "We are focusing more on functional bra styles that have underwires, are cup-sized and have front and back closures," said Epstein. She singled out the Bestform and licensed Fruit of the Loom by The Warnaco Group as top labels.THE J.C. PENNEY WAY At J.C. Penney Co., sports bra sales are ahead about 20 percent this year, driven by the chain's selection of sports bras priced at $10 or two sports bras for $15. "The discounters own the sport bra business, so a $10 average retail seems to be the magic price point," said bra buyer Nancy Hillis. "We are really at a popular price and can offer a full range of sizes every day that may be better than some of the discount retailers." Most customers go for the two-for-$15 offer, which Penney's started in fall 1993, she said. Fashion colors include fuchsia, purple, jade, rose and denim. Practically all of Penney's sports bras are under its Adonna label. The top-selling style is a basic cotton and Lycra tank top that has a shirred center seam. Sold at 110 of Penney's 1,200 stores, the bras are featured on wall displays in intimate apparel departments. Interestingly enough, Penney's tested the Champion Jogbra in its Simply for Sports athletic apparel departments for a year, but concluded it was the wrong place. The bra will now be tested in about 20 stores in the intimate apparel department. Hillis expects it will eventually be carried in more stores. Penney's also is posting solid gains with sports bras in its catalog, especially with large sizes up to a double D cup and 52-inch back. "Everyone is trying to get the best value, and some women wear these as an everyday bra," said Hillis.
DEPARTMENT AND SPECIALTY STORES Laurene Gandolfo, divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel at Bloomingdale's, stated, "We have more than doubled our sports bra business over the past year." One key reason, she said, is that the cleavage-enhancing bras made women more conscious of the need for a wardrobe of bras, and the sports bra has been a beneficiary of that. Gandolfo noted that Bloomingdale's plans to anchor its sports bra business with two brands: Warner's Gold by Warnaco and Champion Jogbra, a part of the Sara Lee Bodywear group of Sara Lee Corp. The number-one selling sports bra at Bloomingdale's is a white cotton and Lycra spandex style with lace trim detail at the center, by Warner's Gold, she said. It retails for $25. "Sports bra business had leveled off until Sara Lee got involved with its Champion Jogbra label last fall," said Carolyn Moss, fashion director of Macy's East. "Since then, it's become explosive for us. "It's going to be a huge part of our back-to-school business in August," said Moss. The hype of the Champion name will be very important." At Macy's West/Bullocks, Los Angeles, sports bras have been ringing up gains of more than 10 percent, with most of that merchandise selling at full price. Kelly Bown, buyer for contemporary foundations, said between 50 percent and 60 percent of merchandise is white, with black coming in a distant second. "We find that color doesn't sell," Bown said. Most Macy's West/Bullock's stores have sports bra areas, with wall signage off a key wing of the store, Bown said. Lockers, weights and towels set the ambience. Sports bras with coordinating pants are most popular, selling for $21 and $22. Sports bras without pants sell for about $14. The top item is an underwire style by Lily of France. At Milwaukee-based Carson Pirie Scott & Co., Bob Pawlak, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel, coats and furs, stated, "Our Champion Jogbra business has exploded for us." "But," Pawlak added, "we misread the business and didn't do it in a big way last fall. We've have since discovered that August and September is an extremely important time for sports bra business." Linsey Martin, buyer of foundations at Carson Pirie Scott, also noted white dominates overall sports bra business. "Sixty five percent of our sports bra business by Lily of France is white," said Martin. "But Champion Jogbra has thrown that off a bit, because the customer is younger and wants color." Martin said customers generally will pay full price for a well-known brand, and she singled out the Champion Jogbra label as "hot." The most popular selling price is $28, she said. Martin, who buys for 50 units, said sports bras are merchandised "front and forward" of the foundations departments for spring; for fall, sports bras are featured on wall displays in the back of departments. "We also like our visual people to get involved, building displays such as metal lockers," she said. "If a customer comes in thinking sports, and she sees an interesting display, she'll buy the product." Sports bras are a growing category at Atlanta-based Rich's, according to Sheila Kamensky, vice president of fashion merchandising. "We've been very pleased with the business," she said, noting that leading labels are Champion Jogbra, Warner's, Lily of France and Lilyette. Sports bras are displayed in lingerie departments on a wall with signage. Bestselling colors are basic black, white and gray; fashion colors such as red, purple and shell pink are also performing well, she said. the sports bras retail from $21 to $28. "If a customer sees it right there, it's an impulse buy," said Rachel Falls, intimate apparel buyer for Matthews-Belk stores, Gastonia, N.C. "We also run newspaper ads for sports bras at regular price, and that really helps." Sports bras are merchandised on stands next to cash registers, she said. Top-selling colors are white and black, and the most popular retail prices are $23 and $29. Falls singled out sports bras by Champion Jogbra and Lily of France as top performers. "The category definitely is becoming more important," said Falls, "especially with more women walking and jogging, who want to be comfortable." Sports bras have become a year-round business at Gottschalks, the 31-unit department store based in Fresno, Calif. In the past the hot-selling season was spring and summer, but fall and winter sales have picked up. "We were missing out, especially from customers who work out," said Angela Wiens, buyer of daywear and foundations. Lily of France and Warner's are best-selling labels of sports bras at Gottschalks. White is the most popular color, but heather gray is gaining ground. Sales in the classification are posting gains of more than 10 percent, with prices ranging from $9.99 to $30. Rosemarie Marranco, buyer of intimate apparel for Jenns, a four-unit specialty chain in Amhurst, N.Y., said 97 Champion Jogbras were introduced in mid-March and 97 units were sold the first two weeks--73 at the main store. "We have to do things differently to compete with Lord & Taylor," said Marranco. "We ran an ad with the Buffalo Athletic Club, featured an exercise cycle in the foundations department, and gave away Champion hats with a purchase of two Champion items, or a set." Jenns, which sells sports bras under the Warner's Gold and Lilyette labels, had a raffle for two year memberships at the athletic club. Each person who registered got a free week membership.SPORTING GOODS STORES At Sports Town, a 23-unit sporting goods and apparel chain based in Atlanta, sports bras have generated a 40 percent sales gain this year over a year ago. Laura Miller, women's sportswear buyer, attributed the increase to the success of performance fabrics such as CoolMax that wick away moisture in the Champion Jogbra line. She also credited the addition of coordinating bike shorts. "The Action Tech bra by Champion Jogbra can be worn under clothing or by itself," she said. "We've done more volume with it because it has more uses." Another resource, Moving Comfort, has just been added to the mix, and is performing well, she said. Sports bras at the chain retail from $19.99 to $29.99. Black and white are the biggest sellers, followed by purple and red. At Luke's Locker, an athletic apparel specialty chain with units in Dallas and Fort Worth, the $29 Action-Tech sport bra by Champion Jogbra is the top item in gray. The second best brand is Moving Comfort, followed by Hind, said Sharon Lucas, a principal in the company. Lucas described the sports bra business as being like "bread and butter in a grocery store. That is the first thing my customer looks for." Price is not a big issue. "Most of my consumers are looking for the life and the function of the product and if they feel it's a fair price there is no resistance to that," she said. Joan Charles, women's apparel buyer at Oshman's, Houston-based sporting goods chain, singled out several brand names as her best-selling labels: Nike, Danskin, Sport Jock, Marika by Weekend Exercise and Champion Jogbra. The bras retail from $13 to $25. "Fitness apparel business, especially functional items, is very strong," said Charles, "and sports bras are really hot right now."
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