Catalog gets in gear with goods for girls

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Like typical sports moms, Lori Schmid and Mary Tenety have always been on the lookout for suitable apparel, equipment and accessories for their athletic daughters, and that pursuit has evolved into a direct marketing business through their company, The Female Athlete.

The Female Athlete catalog, introduced in 1997 after rigorous testing of products at sports camps and tournaments, aims to fill a void in the sporting goods market.

While the National Federation of State High School Associations reports that one in three girls participated in high school sports in 1998 vs. just one in 27 in '71, Ms. Schmid and Ms. Tenety couldn't find mitts to fit girls' hands or shirts cut for girls at major sporting goods stores.

"While there was some stuff available, we really felt that this market wasn't being addressed at all," Ms. Schmid said.

The women were encouraged about the niche marketing potential of girls athletic apparel after learning that sporting goods stores would rather carry unisex clothing and weren't interested in making athletics more feminine.

FROM GEAR TO GLITTER

Their catalog includes everything from sports equipment, including batting helmets with cutouts to accommodate a ponytail, to apparel and even charms shaped like sports gear, all for the grade school to high school age female athlete.

The catalog won an instant following, but last year The Female Athlete, trying to cut costs, reduced the number of pages. The company also turned to the Internet, debuting femaleathlete.com, which not only includes a sports discussion site for girls but also offers merchandise for sale online.

The Babylon, N.Y., company recently mailed 1.3 million copies of its sixth catalog. Sales from that holiday book already have surpassed company benchmarks, and The Female Athlete expects catalog sales to increase tenfold in the next 12 months to $15 million.

"Two things have happened since we started the catalog," Ms. Tenety said. "Women's sports absolutely exploded, and the Internet exploded, too."

PLANNING APPAREL LINE

The Female Athlete's purchasing power has grown, and plans call for expanding its offerings of sports equipment and creating its own apparel line soon. But Ms. Schmid and Ms. Tenety are hoping to remain unique in serving their niche audience.

"We've found that a lot of these young ladies would not want to buy something from the catalog that's a name brand, because they can get that from the box store," Ms. Schmid said, explaining The Female Athlete has targeted small vendors to create exclusive collections like nail polish in team colors and official sportswear based on women's college athletic teams.

"We don't want to lose track of where our success came from," Ms. Tenety said. "The phrase we use is `100% of our shelf space is devoted to you, the female athlete.' That's very powerful because nobody else says that to them."

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