Penney's new Xersion Studio line.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. has a New Year’s resolution — sell more activewear.

At the Plano, Tex.-based Penney’s, there’s a focus on building up what’s been the hottest category in women’s apparel industrywide in recent years, and to gain ground on competitors that have aggressively seized upon the trend. This year, Penney’s executives say, the pumped-up activewear areas — across genders and size ranges — will be apparent. “We have underplayed active in the past,”  acknowledged John Tighe, Penney’s executive vice president and chief merchant. “We are trying to catch up and maximize it at the same time. Now is the time for us to really jump on it.”

The strategy is crucial to the recovering Penney’s chain, which has been in turnaround mode since spring 2013 and has made many merchandise changes. Big-ticket appliances and the store’s first fast-fashion private brand called Belle + Sky were introduced; Sephora openings inside Penney’s stores have been accelerated; private brands like Liz Claiborne, Arizona and Worthington have been improved, and Penney’s salons have been re-branded in partnership with InStyle.

The activewear strategy relies heavily on strengthening the presentations of Nike, and Xersion, a value-oriented Penney’s private brand. “The two together are a nice one-two punch,” said Tighe.

Among other measures taken to elevate the activewear presentation are:
• Repositioning women’s and men’s activewear areas to larger, high-visibility spots in stores.
• Adding performance products to complement the casual side of active, often called ath-leisure.
• Adding underwear to MSX by Michael Strahan Activewear, which already offers T-shirts, polos and jogger pants and performance details like no-chafe seams and reflective strips.
• Expanding the offering of fitness equipment sold online, such as weights, tread mills and ellipticals, and displaying some of the equipment on the selling floors to encourage online sales.

With Nike, “In the past year or so, we have expanded our relationship extensively in women’s, men’s, boys, girls, girls-plus, husky boys, women’s sizes, and in big and tall. The Nike presence in women’s has tripled,” Tighe said, noting that Nike represents about 40 percent of the space for women’s active. Nike women’s was limited to about 100 Penney doors. Now Penney’s is broadening the distribution of Nike women’s to all stores. The maneuver appears to be at least in part a response to Kohl’s and its rollout of Under Armour this year. Penney’s doesn’t sell Under Armour.

Last year, the Penney’s team spent much time in Beaverton, Ore., where Nike is based, to “come up with all sorts of elements that would work best in our stores,” Tighe said. Penney’s Washington Square store in Portland became a lab of sorts, to test visual ideas and ways to display product — everything from pictures of athletes to wallpaper designs, to hanging the big Nike ‘swoosh’ from the ceiling and formats that call out end uses like training and basketball. There are now Nike men’s activewear shops, averaging 500 square feet, in more than 600 of the 1,000-plus Penney’s stores, with the enhanced visuals as well as expanded assortments of apparel and accessories, which Tighe said closely reflect the point of view Nike presents in its own stores. They launched in mid-October, in time for holiday shopping. Nike’s men’s athletic footwear is adjacent to make the shopping easy. Similar visual elements are seen in select stores for women and kids.

The Xersion collection is developing “street” looks and in December launched “Xersion Studio,” a line of yoga-inspired casual clothes, to all doors. Xersion Studio will have a bigger presence starting in February.

Building up Xersion, Tighe explained, is part of Penney’s “march” to merchandise exclusivity, where 65 to 70 percent of its merchandise will be either private brand or exclusive. It’s close to 60 percent, he said.

“Active has been the fastest-growing category in apparel for a few years now and it continues to be,” said Tighe. “Our space for women’s active apparel has probably tripled over the last year.” He declined to say how much activewear represents of Penney’s total volume, listed at $12.58 billion for the trailing 12 months. Women’s active departments, depending on the store, range from 1,500 to 3,000 square feet, which is about the same amount of square footage devoted to men’s active.

In years past, women’s active was relegated to “sort of a swing space,” meaning it could be shifted around in the stores to make way for products or brands deemed more important. “Now we have made a commitment to pull active to the front of the store,” Tighe said. “It’s one of the lead pads when you walk into men’s or women’s apparel.”