Twin Cities fitness retailers race to meet high-end trend

  • Article by: CELIA AMPEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 15, 2013 - 12:19 AM

Athletic apparel retailers are catering to Twin Cities women who want to be stylish for workouts, but also when they’re out and about.

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Krista Roering of St Louis Park shopped at the Athleta store in Edina, which offers an amenity that appeals to the style-conscious: free alterations.

Photo: Photos by TOM WALLACE • twallace@startribune.com,

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Frumpy sweatpants and T-shirts ­— those just aren’t working out.

When it comes to fitness gear, Twin Cities women want functional and cute. Yoga pants have to do the job at the gym, then be flattering as they walk the aisles at the grocery store.

“If you’re more put together, you’re more likely to feel good about what you’re doing,” said Caitie Beisswenger, as she shopped for fitness gear in Edina on Friday.

Workout attire is taking on a whole new shape in the Twin Cities, where athletic-apparel retailers are rushing to cater to women looking for all-purpose, stylish exercise clothes. Gap Inc.’s Athleta brand and Under Armour have recently opened new stores near 50th and France in Edina, while the Mall of America is home to a host of fitness apparel stores ­ranging from ­Lululemon Athletica to Nike.

Experts say it makes sense that area women are choosy about fitness apparel. The Twin Cities was just ranked as the fittest metro area in the country by the American College of Sports Medicine, and since consumers tend to be more affluent here, they’re willing to pay more for their workout attire.

“We have one of the top wellness markets in all of the United States. I think people in Minneapolis are very discerning,” said Steele Smiley, founder and CEO of Steele Fitness, which houses Under Armour’s new location in Edina.

Activewear is a $30 billion industry in the United States, and it’s been growing steadily in the past few years as women’s participation in sports increases, according to Global Information research. The industry is responding to customer demand for versatility, comfort and promotion of a healthy lifestyle.

Athleta, previously a catalog-only business, opened its Edina location in 2011 as its first bricks-and-mortar store in the Midwest. General Manager Jen Sheedy said Athleta chose to open in the Twin Cities because the area was already a hot spot for online and catalog sales. At 50th and France, for instance, women walk around in yoga pants and flip-flops, some toting their daughters wearing running shorts and tennis shoes.

Women appreciate the store’s “cross-functional” offerings, Sheedy said, such as capri pants that have mesh behind the knees to accommodate sweating during a workout, but that are chic enough to wear under boots in the winter.

“I wore all Athleta when I went to the Twins game … and I didn’t feel out of place,” Sheedy said.

Beisswenger shopped at the Edina store on Friday, sporting a ponytail, running shorts and blue sneakers. She said she buys fitness gear that she can wear not only to the store, but also to her job at an ad agency, at least on casual days.

“I’d rather look sporty than frumpy,” Beisswenger said.

Athleta is pushing a sporty look, for sure. But it’s also pushing a sporty lifestyle. Several times a week, the racks are rolled aside and the store is transformed into a workout studio. Customers can attend free Zumba classes taught by Colleen Wakaruk, an Athleta sales associate as well as a personal trainer who owns a gym in Minnetonka. The store has running coaches and is planning to start a bicycling club soon.

Lifestyle, not just clothing

“We want to be more than somebody who sells you clothes,” Sheedy said.

Athleta customers are willing to pay a little bit more for their activewear, too: Yoga pants average about $75, support tops are around $50 and swimwear $55. But the store has an anytime, any-reason return policy, and it offers free alterations.

It might seem silly to have your yoga pants altered, Sheedy said — unless you’re wearing them all day. Canadian retailer Lululemon underestimated how much customers wear their yoga pants in public when the company had to recall a line of them for being too see-through.

A few yards away from Athleta, a local fitness chain is jumping on the same bandwagon. Golden Valley-based Steele Fitness, with six locations in the Twin Cities, just partnered with Under Armour to create a store within its fitness center called Under Armour for Steele.

Smiley said the 2,500- square-foot outpost, which opened last month at 50th and France, is the future of retail. It’s not just a store where men and women can buy athletic apparel, but a center for a healthy lifestyle.

“Our concept is all wellness, all the time,” Smiley said.

The Edina location has wellness coaches, workout equipment and a locker room complete with luxurious white bathrobes. Then, on its street level, it has workout gear, including co-branded items that Steele and Under Armour worked on together. Women’s tops advertise the Edina store or feature slogans like “Pretty Sweaty.”

“People love” the specialized collection, Smiley said. “Because it’s the unexpected.”

He said Twin Cities customers appreciate the high-performance aspects of Under Armour gear, which runs from about $20 to $150. And, of course, they like that it looks good.

“Women want to look like, ‘I could wear this out with jeans,’ ” said Lily Smith, who works at Steele. “And they do. I have, and I get compliments.”

Smiley plans to open Under Armour stores next to every Steele Fitness center as the company expands nationwide.

Target Corp. is also expanding its activewear selection. In October, the Minneapolis-based retailer opened its first stand-alone store for its C9 by Champion line, in San Francisco. The store offers athletic apparel for men, women and children. Most items are available for less than $30, said Target spokesman Lee Henderson.

“Our guests are looking for those higher-end pieces,” he said. “C9 provides higher-end technology at that lower price.”

The C9 line also sponsors marathons and other races, as well as in-store Target events, Henderson said. That’s because more and more, it’s not enough for Twin Cities retailers to offer workout clothes. They have to offer a lifestyle.

“You have to respond to the customer a whole lot faster,” Smiley said. “You can’t be Macy’s anymore.”

 

Celia Ampel • 612-673-4642

 

 

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  • Barb Smith emerged from Athleta at 50th and France after making a purchase at the fitness apparel store, which is owned by Gap Inc.

  • Krista Roering checked out the athletic apparel at Athleta, which is one of the stores offering workout clothing that’s not meant to be worn just at the gym.

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