Byline: Georgia Lee

ATLANTA — It’s a woman thing, and the industry still doesn’t get it.
While there is little argument that women are the hottest new target for sports apparel, manufacturers — and, to a greater extent, retailers — need to sharpen their aim with better products, marketing and merchandising.
That was the message repeated by industry leaders at Financial Day and Fashion Day, a series of seminars that kicked off the Super Show here Friday. The huge activewear and sporting goods show, held once a year at the Georgia World Congress Center, ended Monday.
“Women are on everybody’s radar screen, but sporting goods stores and department stores don’t know what to do with them,” said Maria Stefan, executive director, vice president of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, which sponsors the Super Show. “Retailers need more product depth and more concept shops that play off women’s sports events, as well as lifestyles.”
Retailers haven’t capitalized on the women’s sports boom, spotlighted recently by the Olympics and the emergence of the new Women’s National Basketball Association, said Fashion Day panelist Nadine Cino, president of Virtual Design Studio, a New York activewear design company.
“Retail is the weakest link,” she said. “The selling floor is the next field of play, but product in stores lags far behind demand.”
She called for bolder display, more knowledgeable sales staff and more fashion and accessories hookups with footwear.
Manufacturers need to focus on fit, with women’s specifications, as well as color, silhouette and performance features that deliver the message that they take women seriously, she said, adding, “Unisex is dead, in favor of the genderization of sports.”
(At Super Show, Nike said it completed a five-year deal with the Women’s National Basketball Association to serve as a marketing partner in the new league, which hits the hardwood in June. Nike will host in-store events, support grass-roots girls’ leagues, provide advertising support during televised games and develop cross-marketing programs in each of the WNBA’s eight markets. Champion, meanwhile, will provide all on-court apparel for the league. Lee Jeans, Spalding Sports and Bud Light are the league’s other marketing partners.)
The importance of the women’s market was underscored during a state-of-the-industry luncheon address by John Riddle, president and chief executive officer of the SGMA.
Female participation in sports has increased 30 percent, with participation in fitness activities up 33 percent since 1987, according to studies by American Sports Data, he said.
“It’s incorrect to merely have smaller or lighter product originally made for men tagged for women,” he said, adding that retailers should concentrate on enhanced merchandising of women’s product. He also pointed to opportunities in the licensed sports market for the women’s and youth markets.
In 1996, total sports apparel sales increased 7.9 percent over 1995, with footwear up 9 percent, said Riddle. Discount stores controlled 27.4 percent of market share in sports apparel, with department stores accounting for 17.4 percent.
Key retail trends to watch include continued consolidation, with big chains consuming smaller regional operations and more stores moving into global markets. Manufacturers will also look for more international sourcing, particularly in Asia and Mexico. China, with its growing economy fed by foreign investment, should be a hot spot for both marketing and sourcing.
Walking for exercise is the fastest-growing sport, according to a survey by Kurt Salmon Associates, which sponsored the Financial and Fashion presentations. In-line skating, snowboarding, football/soccer, golf, basketball, hiking/trekking, exercising with machines, beach volleyball and street hockey round out the top 10 sports of 1996.
Maturing baby boomers, who account for a majority of walkers, offer niche marketing opportunities, as well as the youth market, which gravitates toward newer sports such as snowboarding, in-line skating and beach volleyball, according to KSA.
Manufacturers and retailers all emphasized the importance of brand identity in sports apparel.
“A brand is a promise made to the consumer,” said a KSA spokesman, during the presentation of a management excellence award to The Sports Authority, a Miami-based sports superstore chain. “The Sports Authority has succeeded in developing itself as a retail brand that consumers trust.”
In presentations to financial analysts, manufacturers emphasized retail partnerships, developing women’s business and increasing brand awareness.
At Russell Corp., an Alexander City, Ala.-based sports apparel manufacturer, women’s 1996 apparel sales growth outpaced total company gains.
“Women’s activewear is a huge opportunity, and a priority in all divisions,” said John Adams, president and ceo, in a post-seminar interview. “We want a broader product range and more fashion basics with added features.”
Adams projected women’s sales increases to double total company gains for 1997, which he projected in high single digits.
Russell has signed a new licensing agreement with Warner Brothers to produce activewear under the WB Sport line, which will be sold in chains, discount stores and mass merchants, Adams said.
Converse Allstar has focused its brand strategy on two areas: performance and “athleisure,” said Glenn Rupp, chairman and ceo.
Traditionally known for footwear, Converse will launch more apparel and accessories linkups for retailers and expand its licensed business.
“The consumer will see a more head-to-toe look than before,” said Rupp.
Robert Meers, president and ceo of Reebok Brands, said the company was continuing strategies outlined in a 24-month improvement plan outlined at the Super Show in 1996.
“Footwear had been weak, but we expect new launches throughout the year to help,” he said. “Apparel sales, which had an increase in 1996, helped create a bridge for us and should continue this year.”
Meers said Reebok will focus on key retail partnerships, such as Just for Feet, with improved merchandising. He added that department store bookings for 1997 were up 40 percent over last year’s.