NEW YORK — Relax, take it easy, don’t be so stiff.

This story first appeared in the March 19, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

At least when it comes to their clothing choices, casual appears to be the way to go for many U.S. women today.

American women spent over $26 billion last year on casual sportswear, by one estimate, and surveys of their attitudes related to clothing show that they’ve become increasingly interested in wearing relaxed looks —?or avoiding dressed-up ones — over the past decade.

STS Market Research, based in Cambridge, Mass., found through polling that U.S. females aged 13 and up last year spent $26.2 billion on casual clothing, including jeans, casual pants, knit and woven shirts, sweaters, athleticwear and shorts. That translated to about $228.82 a person.

The total U.S. population of females aged 13 and up was 117.9 million as of 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The STS numbers showed that casual sportswear sales in 2002 were flat with prior-year levels, reflecting the soft U.S. economy.

The only group of women that increased spending on casual sportswear last year was aged 50 to 64, who spent $5.5 billion on the category, up from $4.8 billion in 2001. Their 2002 spending represented 21 percent of all spending on the category. In 2000, women in that age group represented 18.3 percent of the U.S. population of women aged 13 and up.

Teen girls cut their spending to $3.4 billion from $3.7 billion. Their outlay represented 13 percent of all spending on the category, while they had represented about 10 percent of the population in 2000.

Art Spar, president of STS, said that marked a major shift in the market.

“If we were talking about 2001, I would have been saying the big dollars were coming out of the youth market and teen market,” he said.

Two factors drove the shift, Spar suggested. One was the lack of must-have items drawing teens into the stores last year, as low-rise jeans and midriff-bearing tops did the prior year. A second, and perhaps more important, factor was the softening economy.

“The recession has constrained this limited deep pocket the teens seem to have, and whether they’re poor on their own or their parents are contributing by forcing them to buy more practical clothing in line with their family’s budget, the fact is they’re not spending as much,” he said.

Older women, he suggested, are spending more to spiff up their work wardrobes, opting for casual pants and tops for that purpose.

It was also clear that the economic slowdown has crimped the spending of lower-income women more so than their higher-income counterparts. In households with income under $39,900, women cut their outlay on casual sportswear to $8.7 billion, down 6.5 percent from $9.3 million in 2001. Women in households earning $70,000 and above spent $9 billion, up 7.1 percent from $8.4 billion.

In between those two groups, spending remained flat at $8.5 billion.

While women’s spending may be constrained by the soft economy, they’re running in droves to the mass merchants. The leading channel for casual sportswear purchases last year was specialty stores, which accounted for 28 percent of spending on the category. Discount stores came in second, with 19 percent market share.

The strength of the specialty channel reflects the success of chains like Chico’s in attracting middle-aged women shoppers with more flattering fits and realistic designs, Spar suggested.

The sheer size of the individual mass merchants and national chains made them dominant in the category, though. The top outlet for casual sportswear was Wal-Mart Stores, which drew $2.5 billion of women’s spending. Old Navy ranked fifth, pulling in $800 million on the category.

Old Navy, however, was the leading brand for women’s casual sportswear, according to STS, with 3 percent market share. Gap came in second, and Levi’s, Liz Claiborne and Tommy Hilfiger rounded out the top five. For casual pants, the top three brands were Liz Claiborne, Dockers and Gap, according to STS. It said the top brands for shirts and sweaters were Old Navy, Liz Claiborne and Gap. For athleticwear, they were Hanes, Nike and Old Navy.

Women devoted the largest chunk of their casual sportswear budget to shirts, on which they spent $77.26 last year, according to STS. Jeans came in second, with an average outlay of $71.42.

When women go shopping, they have casual occasions on their minds, regardless of what it is they’re buying. According to Cotton Inc., women aged 16 to 55 last year devoted 58.3 percent of their clothing budgets to garments primarily intended for casualwear. Business-casual garments represented another 20.3 percent of their spending. Last year, the share of women’s apparel spending on clothing intended for purposes other than casual occasion shrank.

Women own plenty of casual clothing — 56 percent of women surveyed by Cotton Inc.’s Lifestyle Monitor said they owned more casual clothing than work clothing, while 35 percent said they had more work clothing. But that doesn’t stop them from wanting more: Asked if they were more likely to buy a new outfit for a vacation or for a business meeting, 64 percent told Cotton they’d buy a vacation outfit, while 27 percent said they would choose new work clothes. (A free-spending 5 percent said they’d get both.)

The growth in enthusiasm for casual apparel also reflects the overall increased casualization of the American lifestyle. According to the Cotton Inc. poll, 68 percent of women last year said they prefer to go places where they wear jeans. That’s up from 63 percent who expressed that preference in 1994.

Many consumers opt to wear casual apparel because it feels more comfortable to them. Fifty-one percent of respondents to Cotton’s 2002 survey said they’d opt for more comfortable, rather than better-looking, clothes for a night out on the town. That’s a switch from 1994, when 59 percent opted for the better-looking clothes at the expense of comfort.

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