Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Shoppers haven’t exactly gone back to basics for the back-to-school season.
That was the word from some specialty stores and sporting goods stores whose cash registers have been ringing with sales of hooded tops, bra tops in a variety of lengths, flare-leg pants and fitted tops.
Activewear’s versatility is a major selling point with shoppers, retailers said.
“What’s driving the business is fashion. Customers want colors that pop, and they’re looking for athleticwear that crosses over into streetwear,” said Dave Meehan, branded apparel buyer for Just For Feet. “Athletic companies are very cognizant of what Abercrombie & Fitch and the Gap are doing. They know they can offer more fashion and they don’t have to be so ‘techie.”‘
Interest in more fashionable activewear items is due in part to performance-oriented fabrics, Meehan noted. In fact, microfibers and other man-made fabrics retain color better than organic ones, he said.
With retail prices ranging from $26 to $32, bra tops in longer lengths, tanks and strappy tops are fueling fall business at Just For Feet. Fitted T-shirts at $20, hooded tops at $53 and pants with flare bottoms at $44 have also been doing well at retail. Nike, Adidas and Reebok are currently the chain’s most important labels, and charcoal and dark blues are the key colors.
Offering more fashion-forward items has helped increase Just For Feet’s sales, Meehan said. Even Nike, which has marketed itself as a brand for “true athletes,” is getting away from masculine looks in favor of fitted, feminine styles, he added.
At Galyan’s Trading Co., an 18-unit chain, women’s apparel sales have increased by 25 percent compared with the same selling period last year, said Chris Campbell, merchandise manager of athletic apparel and casual apparel.
“Right now, women’s athleticwear is really working across the board. Women are more educated about activewear,” Campbell said. “There is some fantastic product out there. Customers are willing to pay extra for technical fabrics. If a fabric wicks moisture, they’re more apt to try it, and that leads to repeat purchases.”
In addition, vendors are using advertising effectively to teach consumers about the benefits of their more technical products, he said.
Nike bra tops at $32, Nike or Adidas track pants at $60 and sleeveless tops and microfiber shorts from Liz Claiborne, Cutter & Buck, Ashworth and EP Pro in the $40-to-$55 price range are the top performers. To build on the popularity of bra tops, Galyan’s held a fashion show for Inner Actives, Nike’s new performance-oriented activewear, at its two-month-old store in Atlanta this month.
Next year, Galyan’s will open stores in Buffalo, Denver and Grand Rapids, Mich.
At Academy Sporting Goods, a 48-unit operation, bra tops retailing in the $10 to $25 range are bestsellers, said Jennifer Miller, women’s athleticwear buyer. Shoppers have been buying Nike, Adidas, Danskin, Champion Jogbra, Weekend Exercise, Everlast and private label looks.
This fall’s “unusually” strong sales of bra tops is due to women being more active, “the hoopla” caused by the U.S. women’s soccer team and sports bras being worn for nonathletic purposes, Miller said.
Academy shoppers also like the looks of Lycra spandex blend capri pants, which retail between $13 and $25. Many women are buying Champion JogBra, Danskin or private label versions in black or charcoal, Miller said. T-shirts imprinted with messages of empowerment, retailing from $10 to $13, are other popular items at Academy. The retailer relies on a handful of local resources for these T-shirts.
Offering more fashion-oriented private label items at opening price points has helped Academy increase fall sales by more than 10 percent, Miller said. This fall, there is a greater variety of silhouettes such as strappy tops, fitted tanks and tanks with built-in bras, she added.
Women no longer shop for sport-specific activewear, but want versatile items, Miller said. More magazines are illustrating how activewear doubles as sportswear, she added. Blades, a 21-unit specialty store chain that caters to alternative sports fans between the ages of 13 and 30, has been selling a lot of microfiber pants, hooded sweatshirts, hooded sweaters and surf pants, said Scott Kelleher, director of marketing. Shoppers like the looks of Suburban, L Space, Greed Girl, Burton, Rusty and Roxy, he said.
“We’re getting more and more into women’s each year. We have a rounder collection, and we’re devoting more time and space to the collection,” Kelleher said.
In recent weeks, many customers have been visiting Blades to check out new snowboarding merchandise and then they wind up buying apparel, Kelleher said.
With stores in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, Blades plans to open at least three stores next year.
At Transit, a fashion-forward activewear store at 655 Broadway here, shoppers are looking for items from RLX, Nike and The North Face, said Andy Greenridge, manager. On average, women spend between $100 and $200 in the store per visit. A $200 Nike snorkel jacket in tan or black, and $200 North Face down jackets in shiny black, red or aqua, and an orange long-sleeved Polo RLX shirt are key items, he said.
“Women are not frivolous shoppers anymore. They know they can wear athleticwear for working out or wear it just to go out,” he said.
Executives at some brands are surprised that their performance-oriented looks are popular with fashion-conscious women, Greenridge said.
“Nike will create a shirt for a runner. The average New Yorker doesn’t run, but will still buy that shirt. It’s the same thing with North Face. Companies are shocked by this,” he said. “They think they invented these items for one specific thing. People are wearing these items for everything but that one thing they designed them for.”
Transit pulls in shoppers by changing its window displays at least once a week and by posting the logos of the labels it carries on the store windows, Greenridge said.
“Sometimes we replace the window displays every other day. When we get something new, it goes right in the window. Usually, by the weekend, it’s gone,” he said.
At Luke’s, a two-store operation in Texas, black, white or gray bra tops — especially ones with extra support — are key items, according to owner Sharon Lucas. Retail prices range from $30 to $40 and Nike, Champion JogBra, Brooks and Moving Comfort are the most important labels.
Midlength, lightweight microfiber shorts in the $25-to-$35 price range are also key items, Lucas said. Luke’s shoppers like styles by Brooks, Nike, Sugoi and Moving Comfort in navy, black, royal blue and “anything else that’s not too bright,” she said.
“This type of apparel is an important part of people’s wardrobes because exercise plays such an important part of people’s lives now. The Women’s World Cup inspired everyone to renew a commitment to some athletic endeavor. It gave everybody the inspiration needed to get back out there and exercise.”