Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — Instead of complaining about the economic slowdown, activewear manufacturers are striving to build women’s sales with more lifestyle products and a more focused pitch.
“For the past couple of years, the athletic business has had the challenge of figuring out what female customers wanted and how to serve that customer,” said Caroline Kahn, merchandise manager for women’s U.S. apparel at Adidas. “Now retailers and brands look at the women’s business more comprehensively. They’re marrying apparel with footwear and are finding ways to create relationships to service her needs in their stores.”
Rather than selling the same looks to all stores, Adidas is working with retailers to select items that will appeal to their individual customers, Kahn said, as well as offering more lifestyle items.
Having received a lot of hype for sending customized three-stripe sneakers down Yohji Yamamoto’s runway, Adidas plans to follow through with another collaboration next year.
In the meantime, the economic slowdown isn’t expected to affect Adidas’s women’s sales, Kahn said.
“We all know what’s going on with markdowns — retailers are being pretty aggressive. But we’re increasing our projections,” she said. “When the economy slows down, people get back to basics.
They tend to exercise more and that affects apparel sales.”
Heather Stefani, director of marketing for Champion JogBra, is another executive who doesn’t expect the economy to be a barrier for fall sales. Shoppers, especially those looking for performance-oriented pieces, consider activewear to be equipment, she noted.
“I don’t believe we’re in a full-fledge recession,” Stefani said. “Things have been a little depressed in department stores, but sporting goods stores are ahead. Overall, business is fine.”
To keep that momentum going, Champion JogBra is rolling out Innerology, a layering group of polyester-blend items designed to wick perspiration. Targeted for lounging or exercise, Innerology ships in January.
Ingrid Bornheimer-Smith, U.S. apparel design director for Reebok, said, “We have to acknowledge the market is changing. Long-time strategies are more successful versus short-term fixes.”
Given that, Reebok is “going back to its roots as a women’s lifestyle-active brand,” by playing up the brand’s “human and emotional side,” she said. The company is continuing with “Defy Convention,” an empowerment advertising campaign that bowed in January. Another plan is to introduce more apparel to wear when going to the gym.
Reebok also has a promotional partnership with Twentieth Century Fox to tie into the new summer flick “Planet of the Apes” with ads.
Despite the optimism, athletic companies are realistic about what they’re up against: retail consolidation, cautious buyers and heavy discounting.
Carol Hochman, president and chief executive officer of Danskin, said, “Stores have gotten so concerned about the future that no one is looking at the present. It doesn’t matter how you’re doing in the stores.” When stores lower their projected earnings, as Federated Department Stores did last week, that sends additional waves of caution through the market, she said. As a result, buyers are ordering less compared to last year, Hochman added.
Danskin is being “very conservative” with its inventory, focusing on versatile styles, and is clearing out any duplicates in its line, Hochman said. Building on the popularity of technical-oriented products, the company will launch O2 Performance, an eight-piece group made of CoolMax nylon and cotton for spring.
Dave Kahan, senior vice president and general sales manager for Fila USA, pointed out that there’s still a lack of accounts with a commitment to women’s activewear, even though women’s interest in health and fitness continues to climb.
Department stores could be steering away from the category, since markups for activewear are lower than those for sportswear, Kahan said. Unlike sportswear, which has markups of 45 percent and higher, activewear has a markup of about 40 percent, Kahan said.
Now that George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer of Everlast Worldwide, owns the brand for which he used to only hold the license, he is building brand awareness through cross marketing, advertising, in-store events and product placement. Next up: secure new licenses for activewear for foreign distribution, as well as for sports bars and sports drinks.