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If Women Are More Active, Why Aren’t They Buying More Activewear?

Women are more active than ever but they’re not buying as much workout wear as their male counterparts.

The market for U.S. women’s activewear remained flat in 2019, trailing the men’s active apparel sector for the third consecutive year, according to NPD Group’s consumer tracking service. Among men, activewear sales were up 2 percent over the same period, data from the service shows for the 12 months through December.

This is a trend the industry can’t seem to shake, said NPD senior vice president and sports industry advisor Matt Powell.

“The women’s athletic apparel market remains the sports industry’s greatest failure, yet its biggest opportunity. Traditional athletic brands continue to struggle at the expense of vertical brands,” Powell said in a statement. “To be successful, brands and retailers of all sizes must put a lot of resources behind women’s product.

“Making a sincere connection and understanding where she shops are also essential,” he added.

Of 2019’s $50.3 billion in activewear sales, purchases were split evenly among men, 51 percent, and women’s at 49 percent. But with more women and girls increasingly playing sports and getting active, growth in the category is expected to follow.

According to NPD, women are running more races than men for the first time in history and the number of women participating in the Olympics this year in Tokyo is approaching 50 percent, the highest rate ever.

“Women’s sports will continue to thrive, as will the women who play them. It’s time to blow up the activewear retail model, which is not in sync with today’s woman,” Powell said.

Currently, leisure and performance goods drive most women’s activewear sales, NPD found, but both categories experienced dollar sales declines during 2019. School, work and weekend activewear, however, grew during the year—which the firm said was in line with current fashion trends.

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There is evidence the category is declining among older millennials, as well. Women between the ages of 25 and 34 traditionally make up the majority of women’s activewear sales, but last year sales for this group fell more than any other cohort, NPD said.

This trend doesn’t necessarily follow outside of the United States. China saw 8 percent growth in women’s activewear in 2019, although men still outpaced that growth at 11 percent. Internationally, sales in Turkey, Russia, South Korea and China led the way.

“These countries are growing fast because the activewear market is newer, with a much smaller base. Still, this brings with it lots of unknowns to be navigated,” Powell said.

Mature activewear markets require more inventive solutions in order to achieve growth, Powell suggested, suggesting brands should find a way to bring the women’s market up to its full potential and calling the white space in women’s activewear a “renaissance opportunity.”

Some brands should fare better than others, NPD data showed, as women tend to prefer Lululemon, Athleta and Adidas while men are more likely to make purchases from Nike and Under Armour.

“Women also have great influence on the men’s and kids’ side of the business; once she’s in the door, she’s likely to buy for others in her life. Marketing to women can only be a win-win across the board,” Powell said.

And there’s a reason for this. Men have long had national retailers serving their activewear needs, Powell told Sourcing Journal, while there’s no such equal counterpart for women. On top of that, there’s the issue of size inclusivity, which Powell describes as a “huge deal” in the women’s segment. Sales of apparel for plus-size clothing outpace the straight-size market, he added, though the extended category remains a much smaller base overall, reflecting an under-served community looking for even more compelling options.

That’s because designing for sizes larger than the norm presents a rash of problems for apparel companies comfortable with staying in their well-defined lane.

“A large is not a large is not a large, depending on which brand you get and which product within a brand,” Powell said. “Is a customer a 3X in the shoulders, in the bust, because of their height, in the waist?

“The numbers just don’t mean anything anymore,” he said of the confusion around how to design for an array of body types and morphologies.

New digital natives have put larger brands on notice, too. Direct-to-consumer startup ThirdLove makes bras in 80 sizes, and it’s only a matter of time before it gets into sport-specific offerings and challenges the status quo of S, M, L and XL.

“They really recognize that there are a bajillion body types out there,” Powell said. Women’s activewear remains a much smaller segment of the larger fashion market, he added, because of the challenges surrounding inclusive and extended sizing.

But there’s no guarantee that every DTC startup trying to remake the women’s activewear game—like plus-size specialist Lola Getts—will stand the test of time, Powell cautioned, adding, “it’s really hard to start a business in today’s world.”

Still, nimble newcomers could have a lasting effect on the broader activewear industry and push the incumbents to raise their game, Powell said of the growing movement around expanded sizing. “I think all the brands really recognize that they need to be doing this, and are doing a better job,” he added.