RETAILERS SPORT NEW GAME PLANS

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — On the surface, it looks like a simple equation: Women play sports, and they like to shop.
But selling activewear to women and getting it right is something that retailers — especially sporting goods and athletic specialty stores — have wrestled with for years. There’s no disputing women’s represents a growth opportunity. But tackling the issue continues to plague focus groups and executives alike. Some say the challenge stems from increased competition from nonathletic brands and stores, the popularity of sharp-priced private label goods, lack of innovation, and old stereotypes in the male-dominated sporting goods industry.
“The athletic area is a very tough business on the women’s side because of the fashion component,” said John Shanley, senior vice president of First Security Van Kasper. “A lot of women are buying perfectly fine private label exercise apparel at lower price points. On the upper end, they’re buying performance-oriented apparel. But it’s hard to tell if they’re buying it for their performance characteristics or fashion ones. If it’s for fashion, they’re dealing with so many other options.”
No longer snickering at the likes of The Gap, Old Navy and Abercrombie & Fitch for their inauthentic athletic looks, sporting goods stores recognize them as serious competitors. Making matters more complicated is the influx of e-tailers going after the women’s business. Lucy.com, womenoutdoors.com, venussports.com and geargoddess.com are among the new players that aim to steal more market share from traditional retailers.
“We used to have a running joke with my friends who work in the sporting goods industry. We couldn’t understand why women’s is listed as a category. It’s not a category — it’s half the population,” said Vicki Reed, marketing director of Lucy.com. “If you start off lumping too many things into one basket, you can’t reach all women. And you can’t talk to them with the most relevant message.”
Given that, it’s not surprising that retailers are not sold on any particular strategy; they’re trying them as they go.
Having tried two different formats for women’s stores, The Athlete’s Foot now plans to test a third prototype with next month’s opening of a 2,000-square-foot store in Nashville. Robert Corliss, president and chief executive officer of the company, said the new one was developed because the other two concepts are not doing that well. Being located in malls with a traditional Athlete’s Foot store has detracted from the business, he said. The women’s stores are called The Athlete’s Foot for Her, and the new prototype will also carry that banner.
The chain has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the new store type. Designed to be more of a lifestyle store, there will be added seating, nutritional products and sports-related literature, a few new labels, more technical-oriented products and head-to-toe displays. Fit Print, a proprietary foot-scanning technique that measures a shopper’s size and gait, will also be offered in the new store.
The Athlete’s Foot is also rolling out a pilot program for training supplied by Knowoyourstuff.com. With the use of the Internet, employees will be able to measure their performances, check their compensation and obtain product information.
“I’m not sure where we’re going [with the new women’s store]. It really is an experience,” said Corliss.
He did note, however, that women’s sales, which account for 25 percent of the company’s volume, have increased slightly in recent years.
“Everybody is looking at the women’s business. Women are about 51 percent of the population, they make 70 to 80 percent of the buying decisions and they represent 30 percent of [sporting goods] stores’ sales,” he said.
Corliss praised Lady Foot Locker “for making a market out of the women’s business,” and he also gave kudos to Nordstrom for its merchandising and customer service. The Gap, The Limited and Talbots have done a good job of serving women, he said, but sporting goods stores don’t make the grade yet.
According to Corliss, sporting goods stores have been such a male-oriented business for so long that they haven’t been able to give women a real voice.
Now that more high schools and colleges are enforcing Title IX — 1972 legislation that guaranteed equal opportunity for federally funded athletic programs — demand for women’s activewear and athletic footwear will only increase. Corliss’s daughter, who is now a Division I field hockey player in college, made him more aware of the need for stores that cater to women.
Reed of Lucy.com noted how funny it is that retailers don’t single out the challenge of selling to men as they do with women. Many sporting goods and athletic specialty e-tailers list various sports and women’s as separate categories online instead of including women’s products within the various sports, she said. For example, the options might include “tennis,” “golf,” “running” and “women’s.”
The fact that women tend to be more sophisticated shoppers than men and are “harder to please” has challenged some stores, Reed said. In addition, many sporting goods stores and athletic specialty stores have limited floor space and real estate. Nevertheless, Lucy.com is considering opening freestanding stores, even though that is an “incredibly huge undertaking.”
“Right now we can reach women nationally so much faster than we would if we were to open a chain of stores. Building a Web site is certainly not cheap, but it’s much more reasonable to do it in a short period of time,” Reed said. “It’s also accessible all the time, and you can get it from any place. With the way life is now, that’s a huge bonus.”
Even MacySport stepped into the women’s business somewhat cautiously. When the sports-oriented concept shop bowed at Macy’s Herald Square flagship last summer, women’s activewear was offered on a limited basis.
Now the retailer is working to develop that component with additional labels and special events aimed at women. An Adidas fashion show, athlete appearances and panel discussions are some of the strategies being used.
The Adidas fashion show featured women and men, including a troupe of bodybuilders. The retiler also tried to loosen up the crowd with a performance by the rap group Run DMC.
In recent months, MacySport has added more images of women wearing the activewear sold there. Additional brands are being offered, including Puma and Cannondale, which were added for spring; Fubu will be among the new fall vendors.
Kelly Sailor, buyer for branded women’s and kids’ apparel for The Finish Line, said female customers require more attention than their male counterparts. “They want to talk to someone who has used the product. Providing knowledge on the sales floor is very important.”
As performance-oriented products continue to become more popular, having well-informed sales help will only become more important, she said. Given that, The Finish Line has been distributing more printed material about high tech merchandise to its sales associates and via its divisional managers.
Even something as simple as having dressing rooms for women needs to be addressed, Sailor said. The Finish Line has them in all of its 410 stores.
Scott Kelleher, director of marketing for Blades, a specialty store chain that caters to snowboarders, skateboarders and other nontraditional athletes, said asking women what they want and following through with the appropriate product is essential to building sales. In recent months, the company has been adding more technical sport-specific apparel to coordinate with the branded sporting goods sold in the store.
“In our area, the clothing is so closely tied to the sports. We’ve been catering to women’s needs, not saying, ‘This T-shirt is good enough — it’s got the same skateboard brand on it.”‘
Reorganizing sales floors and trying new fixtures and new displays sometimes on a weekly basis are some of the ways Blades aims to attract more women.
“The way we look at it, we’re in a constant state of improvement,” Kelleher said. “We try to cater to the customer as much as possible to the level they expect. Customer service is such an important part of our business — that’s been one of our biggest challenges.”