Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Striving to get a better handle on the women’s activewear market, manufacturers are trying to distinguish their brands with well-designed products, encourage retailers to upgrade their departments, educate in-store sales associates and identify key trends.
For their part, as reported in these columns last week, sporting goods retailers and athletic specialty stores pointed to increased competition from nonathletic brands, the popularity of sharp-price private label and lack of innovation as some of the hurdles facing the industry.
“There is such a sea of product out there. There needs to be differentiated products, along with getting those products exposed,” said Jennifer Black, executive vice president and senior analyst for First Security Van Kasper. “The consumer owns so much already. It has to be different for her to buy it. How many black tops can you buy?”
Carolyn Cook, founder and president of Isis, a Colchester, Vt.-based manufacturer that caters to women, said retailers need to entice shoppers to visit their stores on a regular basis, and not just when they need something. Stores must also have good lighting, accessible mirrors and a wide range of sizes to accommodate all body types.
To some degree, e-tailers are prompting stores to reevaluate their setup and merchandise mix, Cook said.
“The access of the Internet has opened up a whole world. Women are able to to find things that address who they are and what they’re doing,” she said. “A lot of women never would have found us through retail channels.”
Sharon Leicham, director of clothing merchandising for Sierra Designs, noted that some retailers are still not willing to establish women’s departments.
“You need to have enough product to establish a department and a variety of products in them from sportswear to technical outerwear,” she said.
In addition, price is more of an issue than it was a year ago, due to the flood of discounted merchandise. Consumers can now buy discounted waterproof, breathable jackets for less than $100, even though the average price used to be $350, Leicham said.
To be competitive, Sierra Designs is introducing a $100 travel or rainwear jacket, and many other manufacturers are following suit, she said.
Getting buyers to buy the bulk of a collection “so consumers understand what you stand for” can be a task, said Nick Richino, global apparel operations manager for New Balance.
It’s also difficult to provide technical apparel that is fashionable, he said. When shopping for sneakers, consumers tend to check out performance features before considering style.
“With apparel, they look at the garment first and then they consider the performance features,” Richino said. “It needs to look right first.”
Darcy Lee, designer and chief executive officer for Cold as Ice, said the most challenging thing is to get retailers to educate and furnish women with performance-oriented goods.
“A lot of retailers will assume women don’t want technical or performance-oriented apparel, and they won’t take the time to explain everything to them,” she said. “It’s a market where women are really hungry for information. If retailers took more advantage of that, they’d find they have a huge audience.”
In addition, sporting goods chains have high turnover among their sales staff, which makes maintaining continuity in service difficult.
Fran Matthews, president and ceo of Babe Didrikson, a golfwear and sportswear company, faces different challenges as a new company.
“As a general rule, we are finding that buyers are reluctant to spend open-to-buy dollars on a brand that holds no track record,” she said. “If we can get a buyer’s attention, then we have problems getting a presentation onto the selling floor that can adequately tell our story.”
Suzy Biszantz, vice president of sales for Ashworth, a golfwear and sportswear maker in Carlsbad, Calif., said designing contemporary looks for golfers between the ages of 25 and 49 can be a chore.
“I think golf apparel has lagged behind fashion,” Biszantz said. “We’re starting to see a couple of different companies going after younger golfers. A lot of women don’t want to change their style to play golf. They don’t want to wear something for golf that they wouldn’t normally wear.”
These more sophisticated golfers aren’t about to don any “screaming prints” or boxy styles, she said, but want more flattering items such as capri pants, flat-front pants and shorts, as well as pretty colors like lemon, kiwi and watermelon. Some have turned to specialty stores like Banana Republic for basic sportswear that can be worn for golf.
Heather Stefani, marketing director of Champion Jogbra, also said fit is a key selling point, since sports bras are similar to pieces of equipment.
Being able to find and try on women’s activewear in stores, and offering more plus-size styles are other issues that need to be addressed, Stefani said.
“Retailers have been slow to respond to women’s sports apparel. You have to be able to try on product,” she said. “If they can’t try the bra on and jump up and down in a changing room, they have to take it home.”
George Horowitz, president and ceo of Active Apparel Group, doesn’t think the challenges have changed significantly in the past few years. Keeping up with trends and lifestyle changes continues to be important.
“You have to shop, you have to understand what women are wearing and you have to determine what segments of the population are buying more,” Horowitz said.
Peter Soorenko, vice president of sales and marketing for Bellwether, said designing cycling apparel strictly for women is essential.
“The bike industry is so geared for men that a lot of times women feel that it is not targeted to them,” he said. “From the beginning, we try to look at the product assortment with a different color story and different patterns. You have to make it look different from the men’s line, and the most important thing is to show some thought was put into it.”
In addition, bike specialty stores tend to focus on selling their core product instead of clothes, Soorenko said. Soorenko, who previously worked at Gilda Marx and Danskin, said that mind-set is reminiscent of how sporting goods stores used to approach the women’s activewear business.