Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Undaunted by the current retail climate, sporting goods stores are scoring with women’s apparel.
While Christmas ’95 has been a dud so far for many major retailers — despite early and dramatic markdowns — sporting goods stores are seeing a healthy flurry of activity, with fewer promotions in the women’s area than in previous years.
Having seen sales for women’s apparel build steadily throughout the year, sporting goods retailers said the demand for branded activewear from Nike, Reebok, Fila and Adidas has not warranted extensive sales promotions this season.
Growth is expected to continue for key brands. Nike, for example, which doubled its U.S. apparel to $196 million from $97.9 million in the second quarter ended Nov. 30, should see a 90 percent gain in U.S. apparel sales for 1996, and Reebok should see a 10 percent increase in domestic apparel sales, according to analyst Jennifer Black Groves, executive vice president of Black & Co. “We went through a period where everyone made leggings. What’s happening now is they have taken an authentic approach to targeting the market with sport specific products,” Groves said. “Women want something versatile and functional that they can use for cross training.”
Retailers attributed the growth to several factors:
* Unlike ready-to-wear or sportswear, activewear is often worn several times a week and needs to be replaced more frequently.
* Activewear makers are finally offering updated styles designed specifically for women.
* Sporting goods stores have increased their offerings for women.
* Women are cross-training and experimenting with different sports, which requires new apparel.
* Women feel more comfortable shopping in sporting goods stores.
The hot sports for women? According to stores, women change activities frequently, compared with the Eighties when aerobics ruled. Right now soccer, basketball, snowboarding, skiing, golf and the old favorite, running, are high on the list.
“We’re seeing more older women and younger women in our stores. We’re no longer thought of as a male-oriented company,” said Kathy Spinzig, buyer for Gart Sports, a 61-unit chain based in Denver. “Women are doing more than one activity and every couple of months they try something new — whether it’s snowboarding, hiking or fly fishing.”
With sales for women’s apparel running a high single-digit percentage ahead of last year, Gart Sports expects its women’s business to continue to grow in the months ahead, since many women shop at the store for skiwear, activewear and sportswear.
With wholesale prices ranging from $162 to $200, Columbia Sportswear’s outerwear has been a bestseller, with some Gart stores selling out its merchandise before the annual holiday sale began.
Women’s business has been so strong for Bogner, Nils and Skea skiwear that the company does not plan to mark down those brands at all before the end of the year, Spinzig said.
At The Sports Authority, a 110-unit Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based operation, holiday sales account for 20 percent of annual sales, which is comparable to last year, according to Kelly Conway, vice president of advertising and marketing. By controlling inventory throughout the year, the retailer has seen women’s apparel sales build significantly, she added. This year the retailer reported women’s apparel sales were 24 percent ahead of last year due largely to 26 store openings.
“Business is strong. We’re not like Toys ‘R’ Us or the big department stores. We don’t hang our whole hat on Christmas,” she said. “We’re looking forward to starting the new year with a clean floor.”
However, the holiday season often pulls in new customers at The Sports Authority. Adults visit the store for the first time to pick up sporting goods and athletic apparel, which are popular children’s gifts, said Conway, adding that the children’s business has been “very strong.”
While the Sports Authority is offerings markdowns for some women’s apparel, the company attributes growth in the women’s business to its ability to sell full-priced branded apparel by Nike, Reebok and Fila, Conway said. To play up its holiday business this year, The Sports Authority ran an eight-page standard insert in Sunday’s New York Times. Last year the company’s holiday insert was a 12-page tabloid. More merchandise was featured in this year’s, insert but the amount of women’s apparel remained the same, Conway said.
As part of its annual 14-day pre-Christmas sale, FootAction USA, the 450-store chain based in Dallas, is offering apparel with 20 to 30 percent markdowns. However, in an effort to familiarize customers with FootAction, the retailer is not featuring promotions in its current advertising.
“We’re focusing our advertising on FootAction as a whole. We’re doing more advertising than ever before,” said Eric Luthro, director of apparel and accessories buying. “But we’re more concerned with full-priced brand imaging. Overall, there is less merchandise being marked down this year compared to last year.”
Fourth quarter sales are at least 10 percent ahead of last year, with the average sale being $70, Luthro said. Nylon warmups by Nike in basic athletic colors at $90, which are retailing at full price, and similar looks by Reebok at $60, which are offered at a 22 percent discount, are among the season’s bestsellers. Having seen a high single-digit percentage increase for women’s apparel sales, Sport Chalet, a 17-store chain based in La Canada, Calif., is not currently marking down women’s apparel. Unlike department stores, whose sales are contingent on fashion, sporting goods stores offer technical, performance basics, said Kim Robbins, senior vice president of merchandising. “We sell basic commodities day in and day out. That’s why we don’t face tremendous markdowns at Christmas,” she said. “Most of our sales are replacements for technical apparel. A lot of department stores don’t have functional activewear.”
To highlight its annual holiday sale, Herman’s World of Sporting Goods featured an eight-page tabloid insert in Sunday’s New York Times, boasting savings from 20 percent to 50 percent off the suggested retail prices. The sale ends Dec. 24.
At the company’s store in Westport, Conn., nylon warmup suits by Reebok and Nike that normally retail from $79 to $99, respectively, are currently being promoted from $59 to $79.
Sales are running ahead of last year due largely to Chanukah falling closer to Christmas, said Greg Sasso, store manager. Unlike most of the company’s stores, the Westport location caters more to women than men, with women accounting for 60 percent of the overall apparel sale, he said. Most female shoppers are between the ages of 18 and 35 and live in a household with an annual income of about $100,000, he said.
“We will continue to tremendously increase our women’s business. We’re seeing growth because women are moving heavily into soccer and basketball and other sports that have been traditionally looked upon as men’s,” he said. “Now they want the apparel to match.”
At Herman’s 13,000-square-foot store on Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island, many women are purchasing a Columbia three-in-one nylon and polyester fleece jacket at $140 and a Stagsport $56.99 polyester lined jacket. Speedo cotton and Lycra spandex bra tops and bike shorts, which normally retail for $19.99 each, are being promoted as two pieces for $30.

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