If the Sneaker Fits...

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Ellen Wessel, president of women's sports apparel company Moving Comfort in Chantilly, Virginia, talks to a lot of retailers. A few times a year, she gathers a handful of store owners and grills them about what's happening in their stores. What fabrics are women are looking for? Do they prefer certain styles over others? In one recent meeting, retailers told Wessel that sleeveless shirts weren't moving off the racks. The explanation? Female shoppers, particularly older ones, were telling sales clerks that they didn't want to expose their flabby upper arms. The feedback confirmed Wessel's hunch about women's tastes. The company reduced its line of sleeveless shirts and boosted production of short-sleeve styles. "Our consumer is definitely getting older and her body shape is changing," Wessel says. "Our company is maturing with her."

Indeed, those maturing boomers will put the 50-plus market into overdrive in the next decade. By 2010, the population of 50-to-54-year-olds is projected to climb 32 percent, to 21.6 million from 16.4 million. The ranks of 55-to-59-year-olds will grow more than 48 percent (from 12.8 million to 19 million), and the number of 60-to-64-year-olds will grow 54 percent (from 10.5 million to 16.2 million), according to the Census Bureau.

Early indicators from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association show that older Americans today are working out - and spending more money on sports equipment and apparel - than they did a few years ago. In 1987, just 17 percent of those aged 55 and over said they had participated 100 days or more in various fitness activities in the past year, such as free-weight training, walking, and aquatic exercise. By 1998, that percentage had risen to 22.2 percent. Health-club memberships are up, too: Since 1990, the number of people aged 55-plus joining clubs has increased 158 percent, to 4.9 million. And spending on sports apparel by consumers 45 and over topped $8.5 billion in 1998; that's 22.1 percent of total consumer expenditures in the category.

For years, athletic footwear maker New Balance has capitalized on a simple fact of growing old: People's feet widen as they age. The company offers an extensive collection of sizes and widths to court older consumers who want a comfortable shoe that fits their needs. Market research by New Balance shows that older consumers find a shoe they like and then stick with it for years, says Ariane Kjellquist, spokesperson for the footwear maker. As such, the company keeps many past styles in production. Podiatrists often suggest New Balance shoes to patients, Kjellquist adds, and next year the company will build on this relationship by launching a division to promote distribution of its products through medical outlets. And for the first time, the footwear maker is planning targeted advertising to the 55-plus market. While its media plan is not yet complete, Kjellquist says the company will allocate roughly $1.5 million of its $14 million ad budget in 2000, mainly through print and T! V. In the past few years, New Ba lance's market share in athletic footwear has nearly doubled to about 5 percent, says Darren Drevik, editor of Sports Trend, a trade publication that covers the sporting goods industry.

Still, Drevik doesn't see other makers following in New Balance's footsteps. "Athletic shoe companies believe that their core buying market is 14-to-22-year-olds," he says. "If they could run an ad that said, `Old people, go away,' they would." In ten years, however, when 43 percent of the U.S. adult population is 50 and over, they might be the ones breaking out into a sweat.

For more information, contact the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association at (561) 842-4100 or visit www.sportlink.com.

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