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Summer’s Apparel Action Heroes

Just as athletes change their workouts to maximize performance, retailers are offering greater variety in their merchandise and marketing.

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NEW YORK — Just as athletes change their workouts to maximize performance, retailers are following that lead with greater variety in what they sell and how they do it.

Instead of relying on basics, which have driven sales for several seasons, major retailers are seeing interest in fashionable items such as tanks, capri pants and retro styles for summer. They understand that stylishness is as much a selling point as performance-oriented fabrics. Yogawear, which fits that bill, continues to be a driving force.

With more women heading to the outdoors for trail running, climbing and other fitness activities, REI has spruced up its product mix, posters and in-store displays to address that trend. REI’s private label, Sugoi, and Prana are the top-selling lines for those activities, a company spokeswoman said.

To encourage participation in outdoor pursuits, REI offers store-sponsored clinics and lectures about such topics as “How to Start an Outdoor Crosstraining Program,” “Backpacking 101” and “Using a GPS.” Most are held in the chain’s 66 stores, which span from Alaska to Atlanta. Female shoppers comprise nearly 50 percent of the retailer’s $735 million sales.

“We’re all about helping people get outdoors,” the REI spokeswoman said. “The women’s category has been emerging and taking off, so we’re offering more women’s-specific clinics and women’s products.”

Earlier this year, Liz Caldwell and Barry Siff, members of the Team REI Salamon Adventure Racing team, held clinics at 10 REI stores. The company plans to open five stores by the end of the year. Units are planned for Fairfax, Va., and Houston, in August; in San Francisco and Durham, N.C., in October, and in Hingham, Mass., in November.

Tanks, capri pants and synthetic-blended items in the $10 to $40 price range are driving sales at Gart Sports, a 185-store chain, just as they did last year at this time, said Keith Reichelderfer, divisional merchandise manager and vice president of seasonal apparel.

What’s different this spring is that shoppers are looking for fashionable touches on these items, such as capris with cargo pockets or drawstring waistbands. Columbia Sportswear and The North Face are key brands for Gart.

This year, the chain increased its women’s apparel orders by 5 percent and current sales are outpacing that gain, Reichelderfer said. In the past 18 months, women’s apparel sales have jumped from 20 percent to 45 percent of Gart’s total apparel sales, he added.

Last year, Gart, which includes Sportmart and Oshman’s, posted $1.05 billion in sales.

“We’re finding that the garments that sell best are multipurpose. They are ‘street casual,’ but you could hike in them or even go in the river in them,” Reichelderfer said. “Consumers want to get more for their money.”

Shoppers are less price conscious at Henri Bendel in Manhattan, where Nuala’s $188 cotton jackets, $138 striped chinos and $388 Marc Jacobs yoga bags are bestsellers, said merchandising manager Allyson Krowitz. Embroidered yoga pieces, including Chibi’s $238 cotton pants and Maharishi’s $398 pants, are also popular.

She said, “Yoga is such a big thing in fitness. All the stars are doing it and they’re wearing these clothes.”

Bendel’s also is seeing sales climb for $30 Adidas logo T-shirts and Puma’s fitted T-shirts and $48 short gym shorts with piping. Earlier this year, the retailer sold out of $78 Adidas fitted jackets and $68 track pants, but both styles will be offered this fall.

“The whole retro-Seventies thing is big,” Krowitz said.

The Athlete’s Foot, a $500 million operation, has seen an uptick in women’s apparel sales, after playing up fashionable styles instead of technical ones, according to Lori Bradberry, apparel planner.

Improved merchandising with an emphasis on hookups — coordinated apparel and footwear outfits — and the growing interest in yoga also have had a tremendous impact, she said. With retail prices ranging from $24 to $38, Nike’s $30 Dri-Fit short-sleeve tops, yoga tanks, two-in-one shorts and white terry cloth tanks, shorts and capri pants are winning fans for their versatility. A $13 Avia cotton ribbed tank, $13 shorts and $37 palazzo pants are also in demand.

“This apparel really complements today’s fashion-conscious, busy female,” Bradberry said. “The Nike apparel we are selling is very fashionable. It looks and feels great so women are comfortable spending more for the products. On the other hand, Avia separates are also selling well because they provide a nice, clean look and are value priced.”

There has been a shift internally at Athlete’s Foot in how it buys and merchandises apparel. Market trends have been leaning more toward fashion and have moved away from technical, and buyers have followed suit, Bradberry said.

The chain also is tailoring its mix for respective markets. Athlete’s Foot plans to open at least 100 franchised stores worldwide this year. Each franchise owner determines product selection based on the needs in their community.

Galyan’s Trading Co. has been selling items, but “there haven’t been any big standouts” at its 37 stores, said Chris Campbell, vice president and general merchandise manager. Last year sales exceeded $597 million.

“Prints are good, but it’s not brand specific or price specific,” Campbell said. “The way the weather is, anything heavier weight is selling, like fleece or French terry.”

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