Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Dara Sparella, left, and Kristin Lewicki try on activewear clothing at Lululemon in Lakeview, Ill. The two friends, both 33 and devoted to an active lifestyle, spent about $400 each for sportswear on this visit.
Brian Casella/Chicago Tribune/MCT
More than an hour later, the women, both 33, emerged from Lululemon, a women's sportswear shop, having spent about $400 each.
"You gotta do something, go out in fashion," Lewicki said. Sparella added that, "No matter what size you are, the Lululemon stuff looks good."
In the five years she has been shopping at Lululemon, Lewicki became such a devotee that even though she didn't need to, she took a 16-hour-a-week job in August at one of the retailer's locations. "The whole company spoke to me," Lewicki said.
Apparently there are a lot of women who have no trouble spending nearly $100, and sometimes more, for a pair of workout pants they think will make them look stylish whether they're jogging or running errands. Last year, activewear sales increased 6.7 percent from 2010, compared with women's apparel gains in 2011 of 3.1 percent, according to research firm NPD Group, a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y.
Canada's 13-year-old Lululemon Athletica Inc. is the driving force in the segment, with nearly 200 stores in the U.S. and Canada. Sales last year topped $1 billion, up from $711 million a year earlier. Retail experts say its customers are affluent, driven, active and fit.
Despite their busy lives -- Sparella is a manager at a retail store and Lewicki is in nursing school -- the Chicago residents spend much of their off-hours running, strength-training and cycling, along with doing some yoga.
Their Saturday routine has them up by 4 a.m. for a 14- to 23-mile run, followed by an hourlong fitness class. The women said they like to wind down with veggie juice followed by "girl talk" and green tea at Starbucks. Sparella, who is soon to wed, jokingly said she's so busy that she gave her fiance an invitation to the wedding and told him to show up.
Lululemon's fitness-whisperer mojo is aspirational -- brand gurus compare its cultlike following and gangbusters growth to Apple Inc.
Launched in 1998 by Chairman Dennis "Chip" Wilson, Vancouver-based Lululemon shuns billboards and commercials in favor of a more grass-roots approach: free Sunday morning yoga classes, running groups and community billboards in stores. Its sales associates are known as "educators" who aim to know customers by name.
Their fitted workout pants, which start at $82 but go as high as $128 and are known for boosting derrieres, sucking in stomachs and giving the illusion of sleek legs, have made evangelists of customers who proselytize to friends, family and strangers about the apparel's fit and durability. Many customers post photos of themselves wearing the activewear on blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
"They learned the best lesson of all very quickly on: With women, word of mouth is more powerful than any advertising buy," said Marissa Vosper, a senior strategist at New York-based brand consultancy Wolff Olins. Lululemon has succeeded, experts say, because it targeted early-adopter women.
Now Lululemon is aiming to capture an even younger clientele. Earlier this year the company opened a showroom in Chicago dedicated to Ivivva, its activewear line for girls age 6 to 14. The clothing is priced about 30 percent less than the adult womenswear but uses similar fabrics and styling.