Sports retailers competing for Olympics sales boost

When Michael Phelps carries the flag into the Olympic opening ceremony Friday, the oversized pony logo on his blazer will be the most obvious giveaway that there’s more at stake for the country than loads of gold medals.

He and the other members of Team USA will be a walking advertisement for U.S. fashion and apparel — in this case, Ralph Lauren, which designed the uniforms.

Over the next 16 days, the Olympics will be a global stage for brands to showcase the latest styles and technical innovations. The teams’ apparel choices may drive shopper traffic at a time when many Americans are more likely thinking about their final trip to the beach rather than a new Polo shirt or pair of running shorts.

For sports apparel retailers, “the Olympics are the new fashion week runway,” says Simeon Siegel, retail analyst with Nomura.

A customer shops for Team USA gear at a Nike store

Nike, the official sponsor for the United States Olympic Committee, has more than 100 Team USA products for sale, plus more specialized merchandise such as the jackets athletes will wear on the medal stand. Stores will have Olympics gear front-and-center as the games get underway. Under Armour launched a “country pride” collection that includes T-shirts with phrases such as “Home of the Brave” and sports bras emblazoned with “USA.”

Retailers such as Dick’s Sporting Goods will have specific Olympics displays in stores. Macy’s, which has an exclusive partnership with Ralph Lauren to sell the opening and closing ceremony outfits, expects a surge in traffic this weekend after the athletes make their entrance in Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

“Historically, as soon as the Olympics start we see a huge lift,” says Tim Baxter, Macy’s chief merchandising officer. That goes for athletic apparel too, particularly in the kids department as impressionable youngsters are inspired by Olympic competitors, Baxter says. Red, white and blue options will be especially popular, he says.

This Olympic year, the potential benefit for retailers may be more significant, as interest in athletic apparel has boomed. Sportswear and so-called “athleisure” clothing — casual and comfortable pieces that can just as easily be worn to happy hour as to the gym — have become big sellers at a time when the industry has otherwise been in a lull.

Sales of athletic apparel for the year ended May 31 spiked 14% to $45.7 billion, according to data from NPD Group. That follows a 15% rise in sales in the year prior. Meanwhile, total apparel sales in the U.S. in the past year were flat, at $214.4 billion.

Still, some say it’s difficult to determine a measurable impact from the Olympics. Macy’s and Dick’s declined to comment on how much the Olympics will contribute to overall sales. Nike said it doesn’t break out Olympics sales.

“It’s a great way to showcase products, but not one that turns into immediate sales,” says Matt Powell, sports industry analyst with NPD Group. “I have never seen the Olympics themselves get people up off the couch to go buy something.”

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