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Selling the Unexpected

NEW YORK — Snazzy and versatile items such as velour tops and classic track suits are among the surprise items helping to rev up fall activewear sales.<br><br>But these fresher items carry higher prices than basic T-shirts and are also...

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NEW YORK — Snazzy and versatile items such as velour tops and classic track suits are among the surprise items helping to rev up fall activewear sales.

This story first appeared in the September 5, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

But these fresher items carry higher prices than basic T-shirts and are also harder-to-find by design. Athletic brands have spent months trying to revamp their lines with more of an emphasis on fashion to shake off their ho-hum images.

Given that, 10 retailers surveyed said their early fall sales have exceeded expectations.

Barney Waters, director of marketing for Puma North America, has been more startled by shoppers’ agility than their individual selections.

“If you go into a Puma store, people are coming out with a bunch of things and they’re shopping pretty quickly,” Waters said. “It’s almost like a candy store in that they’re making quick decisions.”

The company has made more of a push to merchandise interchangeable, colorful items in its six freestanding stores, as well as in its 10 second-tier units and 14 outlets. Instead of easing out bolder colors once summer folds, Puma is carrying over jazzy shades like “jester red” and “strawberry ice” into fall, Waters said.

While Serena Williams has been getting media coverage for her eye-catching Puma tenniswear at the U.S. Open, most Puma shoppers are grabbing more versatile styles. Instead of just buying $65 hooded zip-front sweaters and $50 velour track tops, women are also picking up coordinating bags and footwear, Waters said. Track tops, for example, match up with things such as baby T-shirts and accessories, and are “easy to buy,” he added.

L.L. Bean has been surprised by the interest in its straight-leg and boot-leg pants in Tactel and Lycra spandex, according to Cindy Gibson, developer for the women’s apparel division. The items are not showcased in special displays in the company’s three stores, spotlighted on its Web site or in an opening spread in its catalogs.

“Customers just find them,” she said. “What we’re learning and they’re telling us is they’re using them for yoga and pilates, but also to travel in and wear to the supermarket. For a lot of women, it’s the first thing they put on at night when they get home from work.”

Wear-testers gave the $55 pants the thumbs-up for comfort due to their wide, low-waisted waistbands, stretch for freedom of movement and wide legs, Gibson said. L.L. Bean introduced the boot-leg version last spring, based on the silhouette’s success in denim and other sportswear looks.

Jimmy Khezrie, owner of 36 Jimmy Jazz, 11 Mony, 10 Hyperactive and seven S&D stores, raised an eyebrow after Ecko zip-front nylon jackets started selling well last month. Lightweight and transitional, the $120 item is popular in solids like red, black and navy. That item is helping to push fall sales 20 percent ahead of last year.

“Believe it or not — outerwear is looking strong. People have been wearing the same bubbles for the last three or four years and they’re looking for anything fresh and new to jump on early,” said Khezrie, referring to down parkas that have become a mainstay. “Athletic is definitely the hottest trend.”

Enyce is another label that shoppers are gravitating toward for outerwear.

As for disappointments, Khezrie said there is a shortage of manufacturers making team sports-inspired activewear for women. As it is, the retailer buys Majestic’s men’s apparel in small sizes to sell to women. But women are looking for activewear with team logos for pro baseball, football and basketball in all of Khezrie’s stores, he said.

Jackie Booker, women’s apparel buyer at Dr. Jays, agreed with Khezrie, noting that many of her shoppers are buying boys’ $40 baseball shirts and $45 basketball shirts from Majestic and Nike. Shoppers are swayed more by team colors than loyalty, with the Phillies being the favorite for baseball and the Celtics and Clippers the top picks for basketball, Booker said.

“I kind of chased the business. I think it still has a life,” she said. “Our jobs as buyers is to pick [brands] and run with those…and don’t get oversaturated.”

Booker said she is working with vendor G-III Apparel Group to bring in more team apparel for women this spring.

At Henri Bendel, merchandise manager Allyson Krowitz has seen consistency in a few best sellers from previous seasons. Nuala’s $88 pants with a roll-down waistband, and “anything velour” from vendors such as Juicy and Ella Moss is helping business in the store’s active department. Nuala’s $38 “second-skin” camisole and $78 long-sleeve hooded top are also selling well, as are Adidas track suits, and solid pants with contrasting piping from Puma and Red Line, Krowitz said.

Another fall surprise at Henri Bendel is the interest in the $338 yoga bag Marc Jacobs designed for Nuala, which isn’t even available yet. The store already has placed a back-up order for the item and has a waiting list of 10, Krowitz said.

Athletic-inspired sweaters from Puma and Nuala should rev up fall sales once they arrive in the store, she added.

Galyan’s Trading Co. has seen sales shoot up for fleece jackets.

“Fleece is popping early with women even though it’s been quite warm,” a Galyan’s spokeswoman said. “It’s been a bit of a hit and a bit of a surprise.”

The North Face is also seeing interest in fleece. The brand’s Aurora quarter-zip mock turtleneck with stretch side panels at $77 and Denali heavy fleece jacket at $165 are top performers in its eight stores.

Niketown and Nike Goddess shoppers like the looks of Sphere, the brand’s performance-oriented label that was launched last month. The immediate interest has left even a few Nike execs taken aback, since shoppers generally need more time to learn about technical products before purchasing them. The Sphere tennis shirt and pullovers are best sellers.

Nike yoga products are also boosting fall business. Camisoles and yoga mats are leading the charge, a spokesman said.

“So many people are doing yoga now and they want to work out in the right gear,” he added. “We’re designing more yoga-specific styles. People almost need to wear the performance piece to feel the difference.”

Board shorts might not be back-to-school attire, but that’s what’s selling at Tommy’s Slalom in Lantana, Fla. Teenagers are looking for $40 “short, short” styles in printed styles from Roxy and Loco Motion. Store manager Jeff Gansneder said he went away for a couple of weeks and they were still selling upon his return.

This summer’s release of “Blue Crush,” a surfer flick that showed teens in board shorts, has helped keep interest in the trend, Gansneder said.

The surfing wave is even going strong in Clackmas, Ore.-based Copelands Sports, where Roxy T-shirts have exceeded plan. Many shoppers are buying three T-shirts at a pop, since they have been marked down to $13 from as much as $30, said Juan Monteblanco, manager. Most teens like tops with the brand’s logo stamped on the front, and the retailer has placed several reorders already.

“Roxy is the hot-selling item for women. A lot of it is selling out,” he said. “Our women’s apparel business has been up consecutively for the past two or three months.”

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