With the slumping economy, the war in Afghanistan and an undercurrent of concern about terrorism, more Americans are trying to tighten their expenses, staying closer to home and spending more time with their families. That puts athletic manufacturers, including outdoor-oriented brands, in a prime position to cash in on the country’s introspective mood by offering a greater variety of sharper-priced goods and focusing on casual styles suitable for living rooms instead of gymnasiums.
Carol Hochman, president and chief executive officer of Danskin, said stores “feel very strongly” about lifestyle pieces, a trend that was accelerated by this fall’s tragic events. The brand’s yoga-inspired label, Zen, is morphing into a casual lifestyle, at-home type of products, she said.
Everywear by Danskin, another yoga-inspired line that bowed in sporting goods stores in June, is also gaining interest for its comfortable, easy-to-wear silhouettes.
“I can’t say this is a universal change and no one is ever going to buy leggings again, but as we preview fall, there is a tremendous amount of interest in cozy, feel-good stuff,” Hochman said.
A Nike spokeswoman agreed that consumers are shopping for “comfy, cozy” looks like the brand’s $150 quilted PrimaLoft zip-front sweater or a new pair of sneakers.
“In general, people are not buying big luxury items,” she said. “Our products are the types of things people turn to. On the apparel side, our line works well into the whole attitude of comfort and home. They’re willing to spend a little more, but it’s still not like buying a new car.”
For the second quarter ended Nov. 30, Nike earnings rose 9 percent to 48 cents per share, or $129 million from 44 cents per share, or $119 million. In the U.S., apparel sales increased 10 percent to $381 million against a year ago.
Norm Zwail, who unretired three months ago to return to The Weekend Exercise Co., the firm he founded, said consumers tends to look for basics when times are tough. Weekend Exercise, the maker of the Marika label, is trying to redefine its position in the market by offering more printed and seamless items.
“For spring, buyers were very cautious and now we’re finding some people do not have enough inventory,” Zwail said. “The beauty of activewear is that people do work out and we’re dealing with merchandise that does wear out. In tough times, people work out more and January and February are the seasons people will work out. The worst may be over.”
Knowing women are buying items that double as sportswear, Weekend Exercise is offering more separates like Tactel blend camisoles with a full bra liner instead of a shelf bra. Marika’s printed looks like a bamboo-inspired design are key for warmer months.
This summer the company unveils a tennis division, 30-40-M, a 24-piece collection, aimed at young tennis players and inspired by today’s fashion-conscious pros. It will carry the tag line, “This is the Line for Women who Want to Sweat.” Wholesale prices range from $14.75 to $25, and first-year wholesale volume should top $1 million, Zwail said.
The 30-40-M line was initially geared for specialty stores, but big-box chains may now pick up the tenniswear, Zwail said.
“We’re coming out of a real dark mood,” she said. “More sport companies are looking for niche markets and there’s a big fashion feel to these markets.”
Carolyn Cooke, co-founder of Isis, a Colchester, Vt.-based brand that caters to outdoorsy women, said, “The thing about the outdoor industry is it’s still relatively accessible and fairly inexpensive. With a minimal investment in apparel or gear, you can get outside and forget you don’t have a job or that your stocks have dropped 40 percent, and spend time with people who are important to you.”
Cooke said she’s keeping a closer eye on price points, since shoppers are more concerned about their budgets this year. Isis, for example, is offering more jackets in the $250 retail range as opposed to $400.
“When the economy was going good, everyone was spending money willy-nilly,” she said. “Like others, we were like, ‘Sure, we’ll put out a Rolls-Royce type jacket for $400.’ Now, we’re also rethinking fabrics and paying more attention to opening price points in the $50 to $60 range.”
As for how concerns about terrorism are playing out nationwide, she said most consumers are moving on, except for those in the greater New York City and Washington, D.C. areas, who have a greater “emotional energy.” On the whole, retailers remain more concerned about the weather than anything else, Cooke said.
With more stores looking for sharper prices, Fila USA is talking with contractors to try to get better deals for a greater variety of fabrics, said Mark Westerman, vice president of marketing.
“There’s no question price point is critical now,” Westerman said. “We’re keeping our prices about the same. But at the same time, there’s pressure to be more innovative with technology. There’s also more of a push for higher quality goods and more diverse products at various price points. That’s why we’re negotiating with our sourcing partners.”
With families aiming to spend more time together and athletic activities fitting that bill, activewear makers stand to gain some business, Westerman said. Given this trend, Fila hopes to see an uptick in fall sales of its children’s activewear.
“In the long run, this may help us,” he said.
This fall, Fila sales reps on the West Coast saw activewear sales increase, fueled by vacationers driving to local ski and beach resorts to vacation with their families, Westerman added.
George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer of Everlast Worldwide, said retailers are buying closer to need, keeping cleaner inventories and scouting out sharper-priced items. Much of this cost cutting stems from the fourth quarter’s lackluster sales. In September, stores scaled back replenishment and eventually pulled back on orders, he said.
“Stores need to try to make better margins,” Horowitz said. “Many retailers were fearful going into the holiday season and put everything on sale really early. In a case like that, no matter how much you sell, how do you make money?”
Everlast is monitoring its business more closely to try to predict where and when replenishment will be needed. Horowitz expects business to bounce back in late February and has already secured “a good backlog of orders” for this month and next, which tend to be when many people renew their fitness regiments.
“People are starting to feel better,” he said. “Prior to the Pakistan and India thing firing up, everyone was beginning to enjoy themselves again. Provided there are no other major incidents, we should be OK. The apparel business has certainly taken a hit — as all businesses have — in the last month. But we’re looking to do more co-op advertising and to be ready when retailers want to chase goods.”