NEW YORK — Despite a resurgence in consumer spending on sweaters and activewear, second-quarter sales of women’s sportswear slumped 3 percent to $9.6 billion from $9.3 billion, driven down by weak demand for shorts, skirts and dresses, and flagging business at department and discount stores.

That’s the word from Cambridge, Mass.-based STS Market Research, which last week released its sportswear consumption report for the second quarter and first half of 2003.

Adding to the second-quarter downturn was a 2 percent decline in the average price of a women’s sportswear item during the six months ended June 30, to $18.43 compared with $18.80 a year earlier.

Women’s spending on shorts sagged 18 percent in the second quarter, totaling $933 million, compared with $1.13 billion a year ago, while expenditures for skirts and dresses decreased 2 percent, tallying $2.04 billion against $2.08 billion.

Particularly problematic was the softening of business at discount stores, where combined second-quarter sales of women’s and men’s sportswear were off 10 percent, to $2.54 billion, from $2.82 billion in the second quarter of 2002, and at department stores, where the combined volume fell 3 percent, to $2.47 billion from $2.55 billion.

The lackluster second quarter notwithstanding, STS chairman Art Spar forecast that consumer spending on sportswear will pick up in the third quarter. A panel of women polled monthly about their plans to purchase apparel in the category found 69 percent intended to do so between Aug. 10 and Sept. 10, up from 61 percent in the prior-year period. And that back-to-school period is typically the second-strongest for apparel consumption, after holiday.

The strongest gains in women’s sportswear business in the second quarter were realized in national chains — Kohl’s, J.C. Penney and Sears, Roebuck & Co. — which achieved aggregate growth of 21 percent, to sales of $2.63 billion against $2.18 billion a year ago, and at sporting goods stores, where revenue rose 8 percent, to reach $313 million versus $291 million. Mail order and Internet business ranked third, with a combined increase of 6 percent to $1.05 billion, compared with $989 million.

By classification, the most robust upswing in second-quarter consumer spending on women’s sportswear came in sweaters, climbing 14 percent to $408 million from $356 million in the prior-year period, and on activewear, advancing 9 percent to $435 million from $399 million. Expenditures on women’s jeans reached $987 million in the quarter, up 1 percent from $978 million a year ago — and topping the $964 million spent on men’s jeans, which marked growth of 13 percent from a smaller year-earlier volume of $856 million. For the first half, spending on women’s jeans surged 12 percent, amounting to $2.46 billion versus $2.19 billion.“For years, Kohl’s has had a pretty free hand to operate a unique format — offering national apparel brands at a discount in convenient-to-shop stores,” Spar observed in an interview. “J.C. Penney and Sears appear determined not to let Kohl’s conquer convenient shopping, with their additions of centralized checkouts and shopping carts.

“Wal-Mart has entered the race to offer national brands at a discount with the addition of Levi’s,” Spar projected. “I’m expecting big things from Wal-Mart this season — they are paying a lot of attention to the apparel business and taking Kohl’s very seriously.”

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