AT THE SUPER SHOW: WOMEN’S IMPACT BIG, BUT LOTS MORE TO DO
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
ATLANTA — “Where do we go from here?”
Now that the potential of the women’s market has seized the activewear industry’s attention, activewear makers and retailers asked that question repeatedly at the 12th edition of the Super Show.
More than 103,800 people turned out for the four-day show, which closed here Monday at the Georgia World Congress Center. Attendance was flat compared to last year, show officials said. There were 71, 853 buyers at the show, a slight increase from last year’s turnout. Aside from cameos by Dennis Rodman, former football coach Don Shula and a few token bikini-clad women, the real showstoppers were such powerhouses as Nike, Fila, Adidas and Reebok, all of them paying more heed to the women’s business.
Still, the show did not reflect the growth in the women’s market as much as it should have, in the view of Jack Smith, chairman and chief executive officer of Sports Authority, the 168-store chain based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“We’re headed in the right direction, but we still have a way to go,” he said. “The [amount of] women’s products sure isn’t equal to the men’s business.
“Our women’s business is absolutely fantastic,” he said. “We’re seeing tremendous growth for women’s apparel, footwear and, more than ever, equipment.”
Kathy Davenport, vice president and general manager of the Lady Foot Locker chain, said the momentum behind women’s activewear is exciting for the entire sporting goods industry. However, further progress can be made, she added.
“It’s about time. We’re not there yet,” she said. “We’re going to try new and improved formats.”
Photographs of women competing — instead of posing — reflected how the industry’s approach to the women’s business has intensified. Several vendors featured the female athletes themselves.
Gymnast Keri Strug and basketball standouts Saudia Roundtree and Lisa Leslie were among the Olympic gold medalists who returned to Atlanta to support the brands they endorse — Danskin, Reebok and Nike, respectively.
During the show, manufacturers focused on plans to:
Support women’s amateur and athletic programs.
Offer logoed fixtures to key retailers geared to women’s merchandising.
Use more female athletes for advertising and in-store events.
Feature more performance-oriented looks in technical fabrics.
For the first time at the show, a focus on women’s sports was identified as one of Nike’s four objectives, said Tom Clarke, president and chief operating officer.
By 2002, Nike expects sales of women’s apparel and footwear to account for 40 percent of its overall business in the U.S. Sales of women’s products currently account for 20 percent of Nike’s total domestic business.
“The power of sports is a universal language. That power is something no other industry has,” Clarke said. “We are capable of taking the emotion of sports and translating that into products.”
To relay its commitment to women’s sports, Nike, as reported, has signed a five-year marketing deal with the Women’s National Basketball Association, the second professional basketball league for women, which bows in June. At The Super Show, the company also revealed its plans to sponsor another new initiative — the Nike U.S. Cup, a competition for international women’s soccer teams. The six-city tour kicks off in Greensboro, N.C. in April.
“Clearly, the women’s market has arrived. There were 1,000 more female competitors in Atlanta [during the Summer Games],” said Liz Dolan, vice president of marketing and communications for Nike. “It’s not the year of the woman — it’s the future of sports.”
Much more than their male counterparts, female professional athletes realize their professional athletic careers, and to some extent their endorsement deals, hinge on the popularity of their sports.
“The toughest part is going to be getting the fans in the stands,” said Lisa Leslie, a member of the WNBA who endorses Nike. “I’ll be out in the malls signing autographs. I’ll do whatever it takes to make the league successful.”
At Nike’s exhibit, movies of male and female athletes playing sports were projected onto a circular wall, within a framed image of a stadium crowd.
In what strongly resembled a Nike concept shop in the center of the room, there were mounted images and sports memorabilia compliments of golfer Tiger Woods and other professional athletes who endorse Nike. There were also designated areas for such specific sports as running, tennis and golf.
Footstools, racks and other new fixtures stamped with the Nike swoosh were displayed. Similar items are being offered to select retailers who want to develop concept shops.
Many manufacturers criticized Nike for the airtight security at its exhibit, including a double check before entering and a trip up an escalator, as well as its clamp on the business. But a few supported the company’s visionary approach to business.
“Let them say what they will about Nike — we all want to have the success Nike has,” said Gert Boyle, chairman of Columbia Sportswear. “Nike has hold of the inner city and that’s where it’s at. The business moves from there.”
“They set a standard this high and everyone else has to compete — which they can’t,” said analyst Walter Loeb of Loeb Associates, while he perused the Nike booth. “They are so forward-thinking. Their leadership in women’s sports is going to force others into it. It’s amazing how they feed the industry.”
Adidas is also building on its athletic heritage in going after the women’s business. For the first time, this fall the company will outfit all men’s and women’s sports teams at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Tennessee, as well as the University of Nebraska’s football team.
“It makes a solid statement about the quality of our products. We want to build a core sports foundation business,” said Steve Wynne, president and chief executive officer of Adidas America. “We’ve made the decision to speak to women as athletes.”
To maintain this athletic image, a spokesman further noted, the company routinely turns down requests for product placement from fashion and fitness magazines.
In the past three years, the staff at Adidas America’s offices in Portland, Ore., has increased from 30 employees to more than 400. Among the newest hires are 20 visual merchandisers who will focus on an area that is particularly important to female shoppers.
Inside the Reebok booth, mountain bikers maneuvered a U-shaped ramp and hip-hop dancers strutted on the stage in front of the ramp, while audiences of 100 buyers watched, sipping cappuccino and eating ice cream.
There was more to the show than the special attractions.
“What’s happened at this show is an affirmation of what we set out to do nine months ago. We set out to design authentic performance products for team sports for young women, as well as looks for the woman who goes to the gym,” said Steve Murray, vice president of branded apparel.
With wholesale prices ranging from $70 to $100, an eight-piece unisex collection of technical outerwear — made mostly of nylon — was a big hit at the show, Murray said. Retailers are looking for edgier looks to apparel for younger customers who are tired of basics, Murray said.
Fila unveiled its new $6 million advertising campaign for women — its first targeting women — at The Super Show. Images of the campaign were featured throughout the sports-specific areas in the company’s booth. Twenty TV monitors played videos of the photo shoot from the campaign — a welcome distraction for buyers who had to wait for admittance to the Fila booth.
“Our advertising should sustain our new image,” said Enrico Frachey, president and ceo of Fila. “There is a lot of energy in the women’s business now. It is becoming increasingly more competitive.”
Despite the hype around the category, Alden Sheets, senior vice president and general manager of Fila Sports, questioned if department stores are prepared to fulfill the market’s potential. For fall, Macy’s West and Macy’s East are reportedly scaling back the number of activewear departments in their chains, and the report was a big topic of conversation at the show. (Macy’s executives could not be reached for comment.)
Another topic confounding vendors was Bloomingdale’s ongoing strategy to cut back its workout wear departments in the fall except for stores in Florida and California. This fall, however, Bloomingdale’s plans to offer more skiwear and snowboard apparel — bestsellers last fall, Frank Doroff, executive vice president, said in a telephone interview.
“Is department stores’ business so good that they can’t look at an emerging business?” said Fila’s Sheets. “They’re not giving it additional space and going after the business as they should.”
Sporting goods stores, especially independent specialty stores, earned better marks for taking a more aggressive approach to the women’s business, vendors said. And these retailers are aiming increased efforts at the more serious sports enthusiasts — many of whom are teenage and college athletes.
Young women who play team sports are fueling sales at Academy Sports & Outdoors, a 37-unit chain based in Katy, Tex. Women’s sales account for 43 percent of the retailer’s annual sales — compared to 30 percent two years ago, said Sara Longley, buyer. Academy is devoting more floor space to new categories for women’s basketball and soccer.
Longley spoke with Adidas, Reebok, Nike, Danskin and Champion JogBra about offering more branded signage and fixtures for the women’s area. Point-of-purchase displays will be introduced later this month, she said.
From March through June, Academy will run its first print and TV advertising campaign aimed at women. If the campaign is effective, it will be offered on an ongoing basis, she said.
Paying particular attention to buying for women was Sharon Pannell, buyer for Fleet Feet Sports, a 1,200-square-foot store in Davis, Calif. Pannell noted that most women spend on average of $50 for an activewear item — 10 percent more than most men.
“Women will spend whatever they need to, to get what they want. They spend more time shopping for specific items than men, so I do, too,” she said. “Women have been looking for technical features for a long time. They just used to buy men’s products.”
In addition to Reebok, which is where she was shopping, Nike and Moving Comfort are key resources for women at Fleet Feet Sports.
The Finish Line, the 250-unit sporting goods store headquartered in Indianapolis, is geared up to expand its women’s business beyond basics.
“We’re definitely focusing on our women’s business. We’re adding new categories like basketball and soccer,” said Karl Roe, director of buying for apparel and accessories. “We’re also moving women’s merchandise closer to the entrance of our stores.”
For 1997, Finish Line expects sales of women’s apparel and accessories to increase 150 percent, said Roe, who was shopping at the Adidas booth. Women’s apparel and accessories currently account for 5 percent of the retailer’s overall business. That category, however, is the fastest-growing area for The Finish Line, Roe noted.
Nevertheless, vendors had plenty of thoughts about what retailers can do to fortify the women’s business. For one, they need to recognize and meet the specific needs and wants of female shoppers, said Rita Cinque, executive vice president of Active Apparel Group, the maker of Everlast for Women, Converse and MTV’s “The Grind.”
Most women know which activewear brand they want to buy before they enter a store, she said. “The old theory of, ‘Bring them back into the store, generate traffic and they’ll have to buy something’ is not going to work,” Cinque said. “Comfort, durability and high quality is what female consumers want. They’ll go to another store if they can’t find it.”
Helen Rockey, president and chief executive officer of Brooks Sports, which specializes in running gear, reinforced the need for retailers to change their buying patterns.
“Buyers are still buying for women based on colors and cosmetics — not fit and durability. I’m surprised we’re not further along,” she said. “Consumers can change that. More women athletes are demanding to be informed about the products they’re buying. Ultimately, that can effect how clerks are trained and what buyers buy.”
Gert Boyle, whose parents bought a hatmaker in 1937 that later developed into Columbia Sportswear, acknowledged recent progress.
“In the past, most of the buyers were men; they wouldn’t buy women’s [activewear]. The demand for women’s products was always there,” she said. “Now more men in the sporting goods business are realizing women have a lot of dollars to spend — for themselves and their families.”
One area that did not receive a lot of attention at The Super Show was the licensed products show.
Located in the Georgia Dome adjacent to the Georgia World Congress Center, the licensed products show drew less traffic compared to the past few years.
Nonetheless, those who were reviewing licensed lines were “serious about doing business,” said Dan MacFarlan, vice president and chairman of VF’s Knitwear, which owns Nutmeg Mills, the maker of Lee Sport activewear for men.
Forty percent of Lee Sport’s licensed National Football League apparel is sold to women for themselves, he said. In addition, women account for 80 percent of the total purchases for Lee Sport, he added.
The company periodically researches the potential of marketing licensed products for women, but no formal plans have been made, MacFarlan said.
The casual dressing that licensed apparel is part of “is still evolving,” MacFarlan said. “The question is, ‘What’s the next generation of it going to be?”‘
ATLANTA — As evidence of the synergy between fashion and sports, this year’s Super Show included a new fabric and design gallery, with displays from 12 fabric and fiber companies, and trend boards from 36 design studios specializing in active apparel.
Key ideas for fall include:
Performance-oriented products made of moisture-resistant fabrics and adjustable closures for better fit.
Outerwear like rip-stop nylon jackets, polyester-filled parkas and Nordic-influenced pullovers.
Reversible nylon mesh.
Collegiate colors and ready-to-wear
Team sports, especially soccer and basketball.
Hip-hugger and flare leggings.
Zippers and stitching details.