CONSUMERS DEMAND MORE OF FABRICS

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Waterproof, windproof, breathable, durable and versatile — that’s what women want their activewear fabrics to be. Consumers’ checklists are growing to meet the demands of their busy lifestyles and never before have women been so informed about the fabrics they wear to work out, according to a spot check of retailers this week. During the aerobics craze of the Eighties, most women were satisfied with cotton and Lycra spandex, but in the Nineties women are looking for a host of such high tech fabrics as CoolMax to suit their cross-training.
Functional fabrics, which crept into cycling, snowboarding and running apparel four years ago, are now offered in a variety of activewear. Women are seeking these products, even though they cost 15 to 20 percent more than cotton-blend merchandise.
Now, more than in previous years, women want fashionable and functional apparel that offers a quality fit and holds up under performance, stores said.
In an effort to simplify shopping and educate consumers, sporting goods stores are offering in-store displays and hangtags that highlight the benefits of different fabrics. If there is anything that distinguishes members of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association from Seventh Avenue vendors, it is a focus on functional fabrics, according to SGMA executive director Maria Stefan.
This month, the SGMA plans to mail a new fabric guide to the 100 top sporting goods retailers in the U.S. The folder features swatches, descriptions and resources for 24 fabrics, including Thermax, a polyester-based fabric that absorbs moisture; Polartec Thermal Stretch, a windproof and water-resistant polyester, nylon and Lycra blend fabric, and Hydrofil, a nylon and polyester blend designed for liners.
“We want them to understand that sports apparel is technology- and performance-oriented,” said Stefan, adding that professional basketball players who wear compression shorts underneath their uniform shorts and pro hockey players wearing Dazzle (bright polyester) hockey shirts triggered consumers’ interest in high tech fabrics.
Oshman’s Sporting Goods, a 137-store operation based in Houston, has begun to educate salespeople, posting more in-store signs explaining fabric qualities and featuring fabrics in print advertising, said Joan Charles, women’s apparel buyer.
“People are willing to pay more for something that lasts longer and serves them better in their sport,” she said.
Women’s interest in technical fabrics has helped increase apparel sales at Oshman’s by at least 20 percent compared with last year, Charles said. InSport, Moving Comfort, Nike and Nautilus are popular resources for polyester microfiber warm-ups and shorts with CoolMax liners.
Charles lauded DuPont, which continually experiments with new fabrics, for advertising its activewear fabrics.
This year, Oshman’s plans to offer more branded and private label activewear in high tech fabrics. The category currently accounts for 25 percent of the retailer’s offerings, but Charles could not be specific about how much of an increase Oshman’s plans.
Herman’s World of Sporting Goods, the Cartaret, N.J.-based sporting goods chain, expects high-performance apparel to provide a boost for women’s apparel sales, which are flat compared with last year, said John Hoeffler, general merchandise manager.
“Customers are definitely demanding more performance activewear, and they’re aware of what it’s made of,” he said.
Herman’s is scaling back on fleece offerings to give women’s technical and functional looks about 25 percent more floor space, he said. Reebok running apparel, which generated strong test sales last fall, will be offered extensively in all 115 stores throughout the year.
Herman’s has “pushed” manufacturers to provide informative hangtags, which serve as “silent salespeople” should sales associates be working with other customers.
With women’s apparel sales running 10 percent ahead of last year’s, Chet James, general manager of Super Jock & Jill, an 1,100-square-foot sporting goods store in Seattle, said a good part of that growth can be attributed to consumer demand for high tech looks. This year the retailer’s annual sales for apparel and footwear should exceed $2 million, he added. The firm is planning on a 10 percent gain this year.
“It’s gotten to the point where we make people aware of the fabric as opposed to the brand name,” James said. “We want them to understand why they need the fabrics. We’re in a business where if you’re going to sweat, we’re going to take care of you.”
A $17 Duofold long-sleeved shirt in CoolMax, a $65 Asics shell jacket in Intera and a $60 Hind long-sleeved shirt in DryLete are bestsellers. With retail prices ranging from $60 to $90, polyester microfiber jackets by Pearl Izumi, Zephyr and Nike are also popular.
Known as a “typically non-cotton company,” Super Jock and Jill offers new merchandise every 45 days, as opposed to the typical industry figure of twice a year, to encourage customers to shop regularly. Donating more than 1,100 CoolMax T-shirts to runners in an annual half-marathon in Seattle is “the best tool” to introduce consumers to the benefits of high tech fabrics, James said.
He said he encourages vendors “to concentrate on new technology and new fabrics” to improve such qualities as durability, softness and wicking.
James, who routinely works with vendors on product development, said his business thrives on new fabrics. He said he always tells vendors, “There’s got to be a better way to do this.”
Lisa Voorhees, owner of The Sporting Woman, an 1,100-square-foot women’s sporting goods store in Denver, said sales are 20 percent ahead of last year’s due to the popularity of high tech apparel. For 1996, a 15 percent gain is planned.
“We only sell performance fabrics like Hydrofil, Ultrasensor and Supplex,” she said. “Cotton doesn’t have a prime place here anymore.”
Looking to broaden consumers’ knowledge, Voorhees said she addresses fabric qualities in her quarterly newsletter, which is sent to 4,000 women. A $28.95 Moving Comfort sports bra in T3 mesh, a coated polyester, a $22.95 Moving Comfort mini-mesh nylon tank and $45 Moving Comfort Supplex leggings are key items, she said.
For fall, Nike will promote its high tech looks.
Nike is setting up interactive point-of-purchase displays in major retailers to demonstrate the benefits of FIT apparel, a collection made of functional fabrics, a company spokesman said. Videos featuring professional athletes such as volleyball player Gabrielle Reece training in FIT apparel will be shown at stores.
Nike is also considering a direct-mail campaign for consumers and point-of-purchase brochures to outline fabric benefits.

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