SKIWEAR COUNTS ON HIGH TECH LIFT
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — It’s worked in activewear stores and it’s working in ski shops. The focus is on function.
With most ski resorts in the Northeast blanketed with snow, retailers in that region of the country said consumers are anxious — for the first time in a few years — to update their wardrobes with high tech fabrics.
Things aren’t as cheery in the Mountain states, where ski shops in resorts such as Aspen, Colo., and Park City, Utah, have been hampered by mild temperatures and limited snow.
There, too, however, ski shops are counting on technical, performance skiwear to improve sales. A key item continues to be one-piece suits, which tallied $42.3 million in retail sales last year, according to Ski Industries America.
With women’s apparel sales running ahead by 10 percent, Stan & Dan’s Sports in North Conway, N.H., is on track to have its most profitable season in nine years, said Stan Millen, co-owner of the 7,000-square-foot store.
Generally, said Millen, his ski business doesn’t pick up until late November. This year, unseasonably cold weather and good ski conditions helped jump-start business earlier in the month, he said.
At Stan & Dan’s, the average purchase of women’s apparel come to $400, which is consistent with last year. But increased store traffic has boosted volume.
Phenix, a manufacturer based in Weston, Ontario, that gained exposure as a sponsor of the 1992 U.S. Olympic ski team, has been a best-selling label for polyester-filled nylon parkas and nylon pants. Couloir, another performance line, based in Vancouver, B.C., has also sold well.
“Our customers are educated and dedicated skiers who want technical products,” Millen said. “If they’re going to spend $1,000 for a season pass, they’re going to use it. If it’s cold, wet and snowing, they want to be protected when they’re out there.”
High tech products such as polyester microfiber, waterproof fabrics, workmanship and longer length are among the features women want in their skiwear, according to Deborah Greenleaf, assistant buyer for Ski Market, a 26-store chain based in Waltham, Mass.
A 10 percent increase for women’s apparel in 1995 has been fueled largely by November and December sales, she said. In the first two weeks of December, apparel sales accounted for 60 percent of the retailer’s overall volume, some 13 percent more than the monthly average.
In the past, women sought apparel with “fluff and embellishment,” but now they want technical styles, she said. “Many customers are also putting more stock in a three-quarter length jacket that will last for a few years,” Greenleaf said. “If they’re going to spend money, they buy a good jacket.”
With an opening price point of $150, Nordica Vertex jackets, with coordinating pants at $125, and Helly Hansen jackets, which start at $210 with coordinating side-zip pants at $180, are among the bestsellers.
Many women shopping at Eastern Mountain Sports, a Peterborough, N.H.-based 62-unit chain, want technical looks for a variety of activities, a company spokesman said.
“Women are looking more for performance fabrics. It used to be that only hard-core outdoor people wore Gore-tex and fibers like that,” he said. “Now the curve is climbing because ‘weekend-warrior’ types are wearing it too.”
EMS’s private label Gore-tex lightweight zip-front parka at $289.50 and a variation by The North Face at $369 are the favorite styles among women.
“Women are just fed up with having to wear small men’s sizes, which has increased the demand,” the EMS spokesman said. “Now manufacturers are using the same cutting-edge technologies for women that were only available for men.”
While the Northeast has been undergoing a big chill, some ski shops in the West have been hampered by mild temperatures.
For 1995, women’s skiwear sales at Aspen Sports, an Aspen-based, 17-unit operation, should be flat compared with the previous year, said buyer Laura Pessel. Unlike 1994, which produced a 20 percent gain, this year has been affected by limited snow, the maturing ski market and price-conscious shoppers, she said.
However, the items that are selling are high-ticket, versatile styles.
A Skea nylon microfiber parka at $640, and Descente Entrant nylon coated ski jackets, retailing for $229 to $550, are key items. The North Face and Marmot brands, retailing for $330 and $450, respectively, are also popular due to their lightweight fabrics that can be worn all year.
Despite the popularity of these styles, Aspen Sports said it will not increase its stock of women’s apparel items due to the tepid retail market.
“There are many shoppers but not many buyers. So far this season has been pretty slack,” said Bruce Lee, manager of the company’s 9,000-square-foot store. “People are being very cautious about spending.”
While recently skiing at Vail, Lee said he saw far fewer women than usual wearing what appeared to be new ski outfits.
David Stapleton, owner of Aspen Ski Mart, a 1,200-square-foot store in Aspen, described business as “quite slow,” due to the lack of snow.
Christmas generally marks the start of the winter season in Aspen and the signal for increased sales, but Stapleton said he expects to finish 1995 with a 20 percent decrease for the second consecutive year. To compensate, apparel offerings will be reduced by the same amount in 1996.
“The main problem is there are less people here than in previous years. It’s starting to pick up, but it’s still pretty spotty,” he said. “I’ve talked to other stores and they’re down too.”
The retailer’s average sale for women is $120, a level that has been consistent for the past few years. With retail prices ranging from $80 to $140, polyester fleece anoraks and vests by Marker are top sellers.
Not everyone is discouraged about business.
Women’s skiwear sales at Cole’s in Park City are running about 5 percent ahead of last year, according to Kathy Dinger, soft goods buyer.
She said the current business climate is “promising,” despite the thin snow covering. Dinger said she was also encouraged by consumers’ interest in high-end European fashion skiwear such as the Postcard, Giorgio Armani and Bogner collections. In all three lines, insulated one-piece ski suits made of waterproof nylon, selling for $700 to $900, are important.
Business has also benefited from new marketing. Earlier this month, for the first time, Cole’s teamed up with a local realtor to host fashion shows featuring women’s skiwear in residential properties that are on the market. Cole’s also offers personal shopping services, gift wrapping and in-store fashion shows.