UNION SQUARE: NEW YORK'S HUB FOR ACTIVEWEAR

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK--The landmark Union Square area here has become a symbol of what's happened to the American way of dressing.
At the turn of the century, Union Square was the neighborhood of elegant department stores like Lord & Taylor, A.T. Stewart and Simpson Crawfords, where customers looked for the best quality.
Now, the area has become a neighborhood of competitive activewear stores, where customers go looking for the best quality--and the best price.
Union Square Park extends from East 14th Street to East 17th Street, between Broadway and University Place on the south and on the north between Park Avenue South and Broadway, which jogs around the square. Facing off around the square are Herman's World of Sporting Goods, Paragon Sporting Co. and NordicTrack Factory Direct facing off, with Foot Locker scheduled to open a unit May 1 on East 14th Street between Broadway and University Place.
Moreover, Sports Authority is eyeing space on East 14th Street between 4th Avenue and Broadway, according to Leonard Weiselberg, real estate manager for the Fort Lauderdale-based retailer. The site is near Bradlees' 143,000-square-foot discount department store, which opened in November in the former Mays Department Store on 14th Street between Broadway and University Place.
Sports Authority, a 109-unit retail chain, would like to open a 43,000-square-foot store in the Union Square area next spring, according to Jack Smith, president and chief executive officer.
"There's been a boom in the Union Square area with Bradlees and Toys "R" Us moving in," Weiselberg said. "It's a dynamic area not only for retail but also for lifestyle."
The competition created by the other sporting goods stores would be an advantage, Weiselberg claims.
"Our location is a great crossroad for lower Manhattan," he said. "There are plenty of people around for us to be successful. I can't speak for my competitors."
Foot Locker, which is owned by Woolworth Corp., plans to open its 5,000-square-foot store on East 14th Street between Broadway and University Place on May 1. The unit, which is more than triple the size of most Foot Locker stores, will be the company's 10th store in Manhattan.
"We're very excited about the Union Square store," said a spokeswoman for the chain. "We're looking at it as a new shopping mecca. We will reach people where they work and where they live. Tourism will be important as well."
Foot Locker executives are particularly pleased that a new subway entrance is being built nearby, she said. To attract shoppers exiting the subway, Foot Locker changed the store's original design--raising its windows and enlarging its signs, the spokeswoman added.
In 1994, women's apparel sales at Foot Locker increased by 25 percent. Some of the growth might be attributed to the company's introduction of mannequins in the store, she said. The retail chain has 1,400 stores in the U.S. and 1,800 worldwide,
Paragon Sporting Co., a one-unit operation at 867 Broadway at East 18th Street, has been a retail magnet in the area since it opened in 1908. Executives at Paragon declined comment for this article.
Paragon offers the largest assortment of athletic apparel and activewear in the Union Square area. In addition to general workout and running gear, the five-story retailer has wide offerings in sports-specific apparel, including skiing, golf and tennis, as well as rugged outdoor wear. Its key resources for women are Nike, Moving Comfort, New Balance, Champion, Russell Athletic, Norma Kamali, Ralph by Ralph Lauren and Hind.
Unlike its competitors, Paragon offers a wide variety of competitive and recreational swimwear from Speedo Authentic Fitness, Jag, TYR, Calvin Klein and 20 other vendors, according to a saleswoman.
Nearby, at 860 Broadway at 17th Street, Herman's World of Sporting Goods, which opened in November 1991, occupies 14,960 square feet. Of the company's seven stores in Manhattan, the Union Square unit is the largest and ranks among the three most profitable stores, according to Maureen Stern, merchandise manager.
In 1994 women's apparel sales at the Union Square store saw double-digit gains, and comparable increases are planned for 1995, according to Stuart Kessler, chief financial officer.
"Retailers are slow to catch on. But once they do, they tend to congregate in the same area," he said. "There's a lot of business to be done in Union Square. We welcome the competition."
Last week Herman's opened a Reebok concept shop on its main floor and a Nike concept shop is scheduled to open in the next few weeks. Vendors routinely meet with Herman's employees to improve their product knowledge, Stern said.
"You can't sell a product unless you know how to use the product," she said. "Our customer service is what brings people back."
Herman's "Unbeatable Prices Guaranteed" program, which promises that Herman's will match other retailers' prices for any item that Herman's carries, has also strengthened customer loyalty, she said. Radio station WPAT-AM broadcasts a sports talk show every Thursday night in the store, which draws a lot of couples and has increased Herman's female store traffic by about 40 percent, Stern said.
The Union Square farmers' market, which is held four times a week on the north edge of the square across from Herman's, also attracts many new customers. "That's where we turn a lot of browsers into shoppers," she said. "Union Square is a real community. It's a comfortable and safe place to live or to work."
On the same block as Herman's on 17th Street is NordicTrack Factory Direct, which opened last May. It has seen first-quarter sales for women's apparel increase by 6 percent against the fourth quarter, according to Barbara Sullivan, assistant manager.
The variety of sporting goods stores in Union Square enhances NordicTrack's business, Sullivan said.
"New Yorkers will go to where there's variety. They know if they can't find something in one store, they can walk a block or two to one of the others," she said. "One of our big concerns is we need to let people know that we don't just represent equipment.
"Most consumers associate us with equipment. A lot of them don't know we carry clothes," she said. "To attract casual shoppers, we placed clothes in the windows."
Sullivan said she visits Paragon and Herman's at least twice a week to survey her competitors' customer service and selection.
In addition to its own private label, the store carries about seven brands of activewear--"most of which retail for less than $30," she said. Brands include Danskin, Marika, In Sport, Nike, Hind, Body Wrappers and Body Elite.
Even the hip and trendy Equinox Fitness Club, which has a pro shop in the gym at 897 Broadway, is planning for substantial increases in sales for activewear and apparel, according to Fran Errico, an owner of the store.
The health club is expanding its workout area by 7,500 square feet and planning for a membership increase of 25 percent over its current 4,600 members. About 60 percent of them purchase apparel in the pro shop, Errico said.
Many members frequent the pro shop due to its convenience, she said, adding that female members often try on clothes after they work out because they feel more fit.
With most customers, price is not an issue, said Errico, adding, "If they see something they like and it fits, they buy it."
"Most people won't walk down the street to buy something we have in the store. A lot of these people are lazy," she said.

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