NEW YORK — Apparel’s deflationary price spiral unwound sales of women’s casual sportswear last year.

This story first appeared in the March 24, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

A 4 percent decline in the average price of women’s casual sportswear, to $19.46 last December, from $20.35 in December 2001, contributed to a 2 percent slump in the sector’s sales for the full year — which tallied $38.8 billion, versus $39.6 billion in 2001 — according to the AccuPanel Quarterly Apparel Monitor for the fourth quarter and full year, released Thursday by Cambridge, Mass.-based STS Market Research.

Roughly $11 billion, or 28.4 percent, of women’s casual sportswear volume last year came in the fourth quarter, compared with $11.2 billion, or 28.3 percent, in the final period of 2001.

Jeans were the only women’s casual sportswear classification whose retail price eroded less than 1 percent in 2002, to $23.35, on average, from $23.44 in 2001 — making it the second-priciest piece of casual sportswear after skirts and dresses. Skirts and dresses bore an average tag of $31.05 last year, off 2 percent, from $31.63 in 2001. The steepest price declines for the full year were suffered by sweaters and pants, as both saw their average tags drop by 8 percent, to $22.33 and $21.56, respectively. A year earlier, sweaters averaged $24.21, and pants, $23.31.

Women’s jeans business last year ebbed from its high of 2001, but demand remained firm enough to keep prices steady, observed STS chairman and president Arthur Spar. “Women bought more jeans than men, for the first time, in 2001, and the trend continued last year,” Spar noted. Women bought roughly $5.3 billion worth of jeans in 2002, off 4 percent from $5.5 billion in 2001.

A handful of casual sportswear sectors were able to make single-digit sales gains for 2002, or hold steady with prior-year volumes, despite the pinch of price deflation. Full-year sales of activewear ran up 4 percent to $2.96 billion, from $2.84 billion in 2001, while sweater volume edged up 1 percent to $4.52 billion from $4.49 billion. Consumer purchases of knit shirts were flat at $6.07 billion for 2002 and purchases of woven shirts plateaued at $4.2 billion.

The biggest percentage decline in volume, for the full year, was felt by shorts, whose sales dropped 8 percent to about $2.1 billion, from $2.3 billion in 2001. That was followed by shirts and dresses, which were off 5 percent to $7.2 billion from $7.6 billion.

Retail sales of men’s and women’s casual sportswear in 2002 reached a combined $66.17 billion, nearly flat with sales of $66.47 billion a year earlier.

Warehouse stores made the biggest gains by percentage last year, as sales of casual sportswear advanced 13 percent to $1.02 billion, from $905 million in 2001. Next were off-pricers, with revenue up 9 percent to $4.4 billion from $4.06 billion, and national chains, such as Kohl’s, J.C. Penney Co. and Mervyn’s, up 8 percent to $9.7 billion from $9 billion.

Losing the most ground in sales of casual sportswear last year were sporting goods stores, off 9 percent to $1.06 billion from $1.2 billion, and factory outlets, down 8 percent to $1.8 billion versus $1.9 billion.

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