Why US Sporting Goods Retailers are Struggling

Despite strong growth in US sportswear sales, sporting goods retailers are struggling as consumers change their purchasing habits, sportswear brands focus more on direct channels, and new players enter the market.

Sportswear continues to see significant growth in the US, and reached over US$100 billion in 2016. Over the last couple of years, sportswear has benefited from the growing interest in overall health and wellness, as consumers increasingly choose to wear sports clothing and footwear for everyday activities. Additionally, the continued casualisation of dress codes intensifies the widespread adoption of sportswear in consumers’ lifestyles.

US Sportswear Retail Sales: 2011-2016

The market sees rapidly changing consumer purchasing habit

The US sportswear market is seeing a major shift from in-store purchases to digital purchases. The market saw current value retail growth of 40% over 2011-2016; online sales of sportswear recorded much faster growth of 159%. Consumers are becoming more dependent on their digital devices and mobile phones to browse and make purchases. To respond to the growing number of consumers browsing and shopping for clothing and footwear online, sportswear brands are investing in building their presence in internet retailing and improving their websites to enable consumers to make their purchasing decisions with confidence. While online commerce is experiencing robust growth in sportswear sales, many brick-and-mortar sporting goods retailers are struggling to get shoppers into their stores. A decrease in store traffic can lead to excess inventory. To clear out-of-season inventory, retailers are forced to offer heavy discounts – this has resulted in lower retail sales, necessitating the closure of underperforming stores.

Sportswear brands push into direct-to-consumer business

Although sportswear companies consider sporting goods retailers an important retail channel, they have reduced inventory in sporting goods retailers due to low store traffic. Instead, they have begun to focus more on their direct-to-consumer business. Sportswear brands offer exclusive products and limited-edition styles through their direct channels in order to encourage consumers to purchase their products from the manufacturers’ own stores and websites. They are also testing new technologies to improve in-store retail experiences and provide a seamless branded shopping experience across multiple channels. Nike, for example, allows customers to schedule one-on-one appointments for shopping through its Nike+ mobile app at its new store in New York City, which opened in November 2016. Under Armour launched its first retail mobile app, UA shop, in June 2016, offering product recommendations to users based on fitness tracking data collected from the brand’s connected fitness apps. Sporting goods retailers face a loss of potential sales opportunities as sportswear brands concentrate their marketing efforts and exclusive new merchandise on direct-to-consumer initiatives.

Traditional apparel retailers begin targeting sportswear

General sportswear retailers face increased competition as more traditional apparel retailers enter the sportswear category, hoping to capitalise on the strong demand driven by growing consumer interest in health and wellness overall. Fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Forever 21 introduced sportswear collections in 2015, while Topshop launched a new sportswear line partnering with Beyoncé in 2016. J Crew also launched its first activewear collection in partnership with New Balance in 2016. Young consumers who wear sportswear for everyday activities prefer these apparel brands due to their established fashion credibility. Thus these new market entrants are quickly gaining share in sportswear, posing a serious threat to general sporting goods retailers.

What’s next?

Sportswear is expected to increase by a compound annual value growth of 4% at constant 2016 prices over the next five years, with no sign of slowing growth. With the accelerating casualness of everyday wardrobes, consumers will adopt sports apparel and footwear not only on trips to the gym, but also while attending social gatherings, running errands, and even going to work. The collision of fashion and function, as well as the expected strong growth of the category, will continue to welcome new players to the market, reducing sporting goods retailers’ market share even further.

The shift towards online retailing is expected to continue over the next five years, due to the growing number of digital consumers in all aspects of retailing. While consumers will grow more accustomed to shopping online, they will also expect an in-store experience that seamlessly blends with their internet shopping experiences. In order to keep up with the growing sportswear market, sportinggoods retailers will need to promptly accommodate changing consumer purchasing habits and implement an omnichannel retail strategy, taking advantage of their current retail presence. However, this may not go far enough; to compete with ever-shortening product cycles in fashion, they will need to emphasise their products’ superior performance or adopt a more fashion-forward style to further develop brand identity and drive consumer preference.