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Ladies Day

A small group of for-women-only retailers are out to whip the shopping experience into shape

NEW YORK — When it comes to activewear, women outspend men by almost 50 percent. Yet ask the average female consumer what she goes through to find the right leotard, bra or leggings, and horror stories abound.

When Lisa Voorhees used to go shopping for workout clothes in Denver, she’d make a half dozen stops before she found the right outfit. “There was no single place that carried a decent selection,” she recalls. In New York, Paula Shirk faced a different set of obstacles when she wanted to try on running apparel. Most stores had dressing rooms the size of a phone booth, with a flimsy curtain in lieu of a door.

Fueled by frustration, Voorhees, who is both an avid runner and cyclist, opened The Sporting Woman, an 1,100-square-foot shop, in Denver three years ago. A similarly exasperated Shirk now owns a small, 600-square-foot store, Women’s Workout Gear, in Manhattan’s Chelsea district.

“Women’s needs just aren’t being met by the unisex stores out there,” notes Shirk. “If they’re not experienced athletes, women are intimidated when they walk in. If they do have experience, they tend to be patronized by the salespeople.

Neither Voorhees nor Shirk would disclose their sales volume, but Voorhees did say her business has grown 30 percent each of the past two years, and she expects the store to be profitable by year’s end.

Given the lucrative status of the women’s activewear business — according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers’ Association, women spent nearly $9 billion in the first eight months of 1993, compared with the $6.6 billion spent by men — the success of a women’s-only venture should come as little surprise. Still, with the exception of Lady Foot Locker, which now boasts 587 units and estimated annual sales of $300 million, it’s the rare independent that gives women their due. “The fact that some stores have dressing rooms at all,” Voorhees says, “is an accomplishment.”

When it comes to merchandise, both Voorhees and Shirk look for vendors sensitive to women’s number one priorities: comfort and fit. “Common customer complaints are that running shorts are too high in the rise or that they don’t want to wear cycling pants with a seam down the middle,” says Voorhees. “Quite simply, our customers want their gear to fit, and they’re just as performance-oriented and concerned about quality as men.”

Likewise in the Pacific Northwest, where another women’s-only independent, Fast Lady Sports, emphasizes performance over fashion in its activewear fare. The 1,000-square-foot Seattle shop purchased by Mike Boze from its female founder several years ago is another that relies heavily on women-oriented brands like Moving Comfort and Jogbra. “Customers tend to look for performance first and fashion later,” says Bonnie Reinhardsen, a spokesperson for the store. “Unisex sportswear,” she says, “just doesn’t cut it.”

Clearly, the mandate for vendors is for bodywear and activewear with coverage and support. At The Sporting Woman, a longer-styled spring season running bra from Jogbra sold out in a matter of weeks. Despite the success of the market test, Voorhees says the company has no plans to produce more of the item. “And that’s a shame because it’s just the type of thing women want — the companies should start listening to their customers.” Apparently, some are. “We just received shipments of longer shorts from Nike, Hind and Moving Comfort,” says Fast Lady Sports’ Reinhardsen. “Women were complaining that all the ones we had were too short.”

For the most part, however, the consensus among women’s-only retailers is that vendors don’t understand the market as well as they should. “Manufacturers need to respect women a bit more,” says Shirk. “Sizing is outrageous — I weigh 106 pounds and take a medium in most items. My 130-pound buyer wears a large. What the manufacturers are saying is that if you don’t weigh in the region of 110 pounds, you’re undesirable, unattractive and overweight. Then, they wind up discouraging the women who need the most support.”

Taking a cue from their suppliers’ mistakes, each of the stores relies on female-friendly merchandising and marketing efforts. The Sporting Woman and Fast Lady Sports both host sports and health clinics geared toward women. Women’s Workout Gear sent cards to its customers worth 15 percent off a sport bra if they promised to give themselves a breast exam. “It was a sales tactic, but it also provided a flavor of what the store is all about,” says Lesley Sawhill, manager of Women’s Workout Gear. “We’re informed about what our customers want and need.” “Women know what they want,” says Sawhill, dispelling the myth of the frivolous female consumer. “Many enjoy shopping, but most don’t have the luxury of time to spend making selections.” Voorhees sees the same traits in her customers. “Many of them want to come in, get their stuff and get out and use it,” she says. “And they’re not always looking for bargains, either. The women are more than willing to pay for quality.”

At both Women’s Workout Gear and Fast Lady Sports, specially designed women’s bodywear lines such as Moving Comfort, Jogbra, San Francisco City Lights and Gilda Marx are among the bestsellers. Leotards in Women’s Workout Gear start at $28 for brands like Dance France and go to $42, while running shorts by Moving Comfort and Hind range from $25 to $30. Sport bras from Jogbra start at $18 and go to $35 for brands like Lily of France.