STORES PUT A STYLE SPIN ON FALL

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Despite the recent turmoil on Wall Street and economic jitters, activewear retailers remain confident about fall business and plan to play up fashion-oriented merchandise.
Instead of simply sharpening their prices and offering lots of promotions, stores plan to play up multifunctional, stylish looks. The category’s versatility should be a plus with shoppers who may be looking for more value for their purchase come September.
Franny Errico, national buyer for Equinox Energywear, said of fall’s merchandise scheme, “It has to be unusual, but it has to have a look.”
New styles are being shipped to Equinox’s 11 stores every month. With spring shoppers showing no signs of shying away from steep prices, the chain will keep the bulk of its fall merchandise in the $50-to-$125 range, which is consistent with a year ago.
Bella Dahl’s $120 vintage sweatshirts and $100 low-rise sweatpants, Red Line’s $46 nylon shorts, Joia’s $74 stretch denim pants and $122 jackets, and Major DeLemma’s T-shirts imprinted with such sayings as “Less is More” and “Top Secret” are bestsellers.
To build on the interest in fashion-oriented looks, Equinox is going to introduce its shoppers to the Puma brand, Errico said: “We’re going with what’s really hot — something different that customers have to have.”
Eastern Mountain Sports, a 78-store chain, doesn’t plan to alter fall plans for women’s apparel due to the unstable economy. On the contrary, the retailer is stepping up its efforts, since women’s business is “stronger than ever,” said Amy Leighton, product manager.
This fall, EMS is moving women’s activewear and casual apparel to the entrances of its stores from the back, and more silhouettes and different colors are being offered. Plum, watermelon and lapis will be among the new shades offered for activewear.
“The economy has not impacted our women’s business. In fact, we’ve decided to give it some real play,” Leighton said.
Patagonia, The North Face and Columbia Sportswear are key brands, but private label sales comprise more than 65 percent of EMS’s business and should continue at that rate for fall.
Academy Sporting Goods, a 50-unit chain with headquarters in Katy, Tex., is counting on activewear’s versatility to continue to be a selling point with consumers and is “pretty confident” about business headed into fall, said Jennifer Miller, women’s athleticwear buyer.
“There’s so much lifestyle crossover now with activewear. Companies are doing a better job with fit,” Miller said. “Once they wear it for athletics, they want to wear it all the time. It’s that comfortable.”
Despite $90 and $100 fall offerings from brands like Nike, Academy plans to keep most of its higher-priced merchandise in the $47-to-$53 range. A smattering of pricier items will be available at the chain’s higher-volume, fashion-oriented units.
“Our philosophy is a little different,” Miller said. “We don’t do a lot of promotions. We try to be an everyday-low-price store.”
Pants will be key for fall at Academy, with Supplex styles, rib knits, tights, leggings and nylon pants expected to be key styles. Fashion trends from New York and Los Angeles tend to take two years to make their way to Academy shoppers throughout the rest of the country, said Miller, adding that Adidas’s three-stripe pants are still popular with her customers.
Nike is doing “really well,” but a variety of labels, including Reebok, Brooks Sports, Moving Comfort, Danskin and Everlast, should be key for fall, she said.
“There’s no one brand any more,” Miller said. “It’s about the fabric, fit and feel.”
Jimmy Khezrie, president of Jimmy Jazz, has no plans to change his fall business plans and will continue to offer merchandise in the $30-to-$200 range. Women’s apparel posted double-digit gains for January and February, and comparable growth is expected this month, he said.
Girbaud, Fubu Ladies, Iceberg and Guess are among the popular labels. But like Miller, Khezrie’s customers are no longer shopping strictly for names. The retailer caters to fashion-conscious, urban customers at its 36 Jimmy Jazz and seven Mony stores, as well as the 75-unit SND chain in which Khezrie holds a 50 percent stake.
With the sporty look making a comeback, Enyce Ladies’ velour warm-up suits are expected to be a hit this fall, he said. “The right denim,” especially frayed styles and multi-combination washes, should also help drive fall sales, Khezrie added.