Activewear--dual purpose, easy-to-wear items of fleece, thermal and jersey--is being singled out by retailers as a top priority in 1995. In a survey of retailers across the country, merchants at department stores, chains, sporting goods outlets and direct marketing firms see activewear as a "huge opportunity." But according to a comprehensive study of the sports apparel market put together for the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, North Palm Beach, Fla., there still remains an untapped potential in the women's area. The survey, done for the SGMA by Directions for Decisions, said sports apparel in 1993--a $32.2 billion industry at retail--is equally owned by men and women, with 86 percent of males owning sports apparel and 85 percent of women. However, 63 percent of the sports apparel found at all stores is targeted to men. The study goes on to say that consumers cited comfort as the most important element when purchasing sports apparel. It also noted that 56 percent of consumers use sports apparel for both casualwear and sports activities; 35 percent use it strictly for casualwear, and only 8 percent use it strictly for sports or fitness activities. Retailers said they began addressing the women's activewear business more seriously a year ago. These efforts have contributed to a doubling of sales in the category--specifically in thermals, fleece and jersey--for many stores, and activewear is expected to gain an even stronger foothold this year. Stores generally recognize the untapped prospects that activewear business offers, and many this year are increasing funding, as well as expanding floor space, signage and displays. A majority of retailers, however, are still mulling over ideas on how to realize long-term benefits. What makes active looks particularly appealing to consumers is the crossover from several areas--elements taken from a mix of sophisticated European styling, especially from the ski industry; influences from the West Coast, such as surfer looks, and more traditional, softly tailored styling from Seventh Avenue sportswear houses. In addition to comfort, the items--oversized tops and printed T-shirts, various styles of jackets, two-piece pant sets, leggings, rompers, unitards, and a variety of shorts--are increasing in popularity due to several factors: Comfort. Affordability. Dual-purpose function. A rising interest in fitness and sports activities such as golf, tennis and cross-training activities. Consumer recognition of performance fabrics such as Lycra spandex blends and microfibers. A trendy way to look "cool" even if the consumer doesn't exercise. Competition among retailers is fierce, and many are looking to expand assortments of branded and private label basics as well as fashion items from ready-to-wear names such as DKNY and Calvin Klein, and OMO Gym by Norma Kamali, as well as established activewear and bodywear resources. Among the main active and bodywear labels singled out by merchants are Danskin, Reebok, Nike, Weekend Exercise, Gilda Marx, Crunch, and the licensed Everlast and Converse names at Active Apparel Group. Some retailers feel the activewear category is so hot--and competitive--they refuse to discuss details. For example, a spokeswoman for Sears, Roebuck, Chicago, said, "Our activewear people are really reluctant to talk about competitive information. We'll have to decline this time." Still, others say the active category has become so prominent that it's beginning to bite into traditional sportswear and juniors business. "Casual lifestyle looks are definitely cutting into the sportswear and juniors business," commented Margaret Donohue Barr, women's concept manager at Mervyn's, Hayward, Calif. Butch Mullins, general merchandise manager of women's apparel at Neiman Marcus, Dallas, noted, "The long-term potential for casual lifestyle merchandise is great. It's a major source of growth, and we've been giving it more funding." Mullins was referring to two areas of casual dressing: "denim-friendly items that have been consistently strong for several years, and activewear-inspired looks of french terry, polar fleece and thermals," a classification that has had dramatic growth over the past year. Key vendors of active looks are Adrienne Vittadini, DKNY, Fatiques and Cotton Stuff, he said. Neiman's also does a "limited" business with OMO Gym, which he described as having more of an authentic activewear look. "When the product is more spectator-oriented--not participant--we have more success," he said. "Over the past three years, we have done a big french terry and thermal business, and it's grown to be a very large and healthy business for us," said Mullins. "Two years ago, there really wasn't a strong resource structure in that area." One point in particular that Mullins wanted to make clear was the growing emphasis on "lifestyle attitude." "Comfort, as well as technology, is very important," he said. "In addition to casual Fridays at the workplace, so many more people are working with computers from home." As for what Neiman's calls the active category, Mullins replied: "It's casual knitwear dressing. We identify the area as casual sportswear with vendor signage, but we concentrate on the importance of communication--through the abundance of merchandise, rather than signage." Andrea Jung, president of the product marketing group at Avon Products, stated, "We see casualwear for active lifestyles as the single biggest apparel category for growth in 1995. We tested it in 1994, and it proved to be enormously successful. "Our philosophy is to take the guesswork out of the picture for the consumer with easy mix-and-match pieces, in a variety of easy-care fabrics such as cotton knits for spring, and fleece and thermals for fall." Nancy Lanzet, activewear buyer for Lady Footlocker, a 600-unit sporting goods chain, based here, noted, "We see casual lifestyle dressing as a very important part of our business. The products are fashionable and comfortable, and we are making a lot more room for it." Lanzet would not give figures but noted that the category has generated "quite respectable increases" to total company sales. Lanzet added that "fashion looks and texture are the important issues, because this type of product has to have something beyond function." She further noted that special treatments such as zipper effects, appliqués and patchwork looks give products the perception of added value. "Looser, baggier active looks are much more in now for the gym and to hang around the house in," said Joan Charles, women's apparel buyer at Oshman's, a 120-door sporting goods operation in Houston. "As that look becomes more important, you have to have novelty fabrics, the impact of color and key items to keep it interesting." Charles added that there have been "huge increases" in Lycra-blend stretch tops and sports bras, but said that the classification of basic stretch items of cotton and Lycra such as leotards have been "down-trending considerably." "Consumers are wearing the stretch tops under jersey tanks and with other jersey coordinates," said Charles. Margaret Donohue Barr of Mervyn's said, "We certainly are banking on activewear business, and it's been very strong. Basic business continues to be good, but fashion now accounts for 50 percent of that business. "We are funding active looks more because the classification relates more to sportswear," she said. "Basically, the consumer has needs and now wants to dress this way," said Barr, noting that items like little tennis skirts and polo tops are being worn for sports activities, as well as casual wear. Key activewear vendors that are successfully selling these dual-purpose looks at Mervyn's are the licensed Everlast and Converse names by Active Apparel Group, she added. Barr noted that Mervyn's instituted a new merchandising concept this month called Trend Zones in its junior departments. The idea--an in-store area of lifestyle looks with signage and point-of-sale materials that reflect a specific theme--integrates a total fashion statement from head to toe. Mervyn's plans to expand the idea to men's wear, home accessories and six women's departments of accessories and apparel, she said. "We are giving active looks more focused space. We feel the business has moved away from item selling," continued Barr. "We need to put things together for consumers to see." Sheila Aimette, fashion director of accessories, shoes, intimate apparel and bodywear at Macy's East, noted, "The concept has really evolved, and active looks of polar fleece and fleece now account for a large segment of our bodywear and activewear business." She added that logos and brand recognition continue to grow in importance. "The Gap and Banana Republic are going after these active looks in a big way, because it's become a fashion statement," she continued. "Now you see major names in sportswear such as Calvin Klein, DKNY and Norma Kamali really going after that look." "Consumers' active wardrobes are definitely becoming a major asset," said Janice Martz, assistant buyer of bodywear and hosiery at J.C. Penney Co., Dallas. "Consumers are looking for more coordinated coverup pieces, and we have been merchandising more coordinating items within bodywear groups." Martz noted that while Penney's still houses bodywear within main floor hosiery departments, consumers are buying lots of active-related items in that area. She singled out crop tops, sweatshirts and coordinating pull-on pants of french terry by Jacques Moret as top-selling items.
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