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Racing swim suits
June/July 2011

Racing swimsuits:

An opportunity for retailers?

Despite — or maybe because of — the international controversy surrounding the wearing of bodysuits in competitive swimming, their popularity has grown amongst SA swimmers. Is this a stock item sports retailers should take another look at, or is it an item best sold at galas? asks FANIE HEYNS

South Africa’s growing contingent of medal-pursuing world-class swimmers and the comprehensive knowledge by parents of the comparative advantages of bodysuits have contributed to the increased purchasing of these suits by our competitive swimming population.

This is a remarkable feat for manufacturers of the bodysuits in the wake of the international controversy about full bodysuits that resulted in drastic rule changes by the international regulatory swimming body FINA for these suits.

In July 2009, the FINA bureau upheld a decision by its congress to restrict males to suits that go from the waist to the top of the knees, while female suits could not go past the shoulders or beyond the knees. Suit materials were restricted to textiles, and they announced specific standards for buoyancy, thickness and permeability.

FINA acted after dramatic leaps in technology in the period 2007-2009 led to a complete rewriting of the record books. At the 2009 World Championships, the last for suits such as Speedo’s LZR Racer or polyurethane models offered by Arena, 11 world records were set in the first two days.

“With 15 World Records at the 2007 World Aquatics Championships and 25 World Records and 65 Olympic Records being broken at the 2008 Olympics, the interest in high compression and high buoyancy suits increased considerably,” says Joe Schoeman of Swimming International, local distributor of Finis.

“Higher buoyancy allows the swimmer to ride higher in the water, which gives less resistance. Higher compression to the muscles groups will add buoyancy, again allowing the swimmer to ride higher in the water. Tech suit material has a much lower drag coefficient than standard suits. This is achieved by making the suit thinner, using materials that absorb less water and adding water repellent coatings. All of this means that you will swim faster with the same amount of effort in a tech suit than in a standard suit,” he explains.

“These records in swimming have gotten to the point where they get a golf clap — just a polite applause,” said US Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus in an interview with Associated Press in July 2009. “They're not as special and it just raises the expectations for the athletes.”

After the July 2009 FINA ruling, the manufacturers had to go back to the drawing board to adapt their suits to the new FINA specification. Speedo’s new suits were back on the market within six months, explains Nicola Heimann, national marketing manager of Speedo SA.

Leap in bodysuit sales

Originally made for elite swimmers competing internationally, especially at the Olympics, local competitive swimmers have also taken to wearing these suits over the last few years. All the distributors SA Sports Trader spoke to, report that there has been a big growth in demand for the technical suits, especially at national and regional championships.

“The reasons for the popularity of the suits are that SA swimming parents are very well educated on what is happening internationally,” says Heimann. “They keep in touch with what is happening through the internet and a lot of them travel to international races and watch these events in SA.”

More affordable prices, the international ambition and aspirations of local swimmers, and the increased popularity of swimming in SA, particularly the open water-events, are all factors that have contributed to the increases in sales of bodysuits locally, she believes.

“There are about 25 000 registered swimmers in SA. More people are participating in triathlons and biathlons. Participation in open water events is increasing at a rapid rate.”

The Midmar Mile attracts about 19 000 swimmers, which this year included Charlene Whittstock, the future Princess of Monaco.

The leap in bodysuit sales over the past three years can be attributed to competitive swimming becoming a cooler sport of late, adds Tammy Rutherford, national sales director at Second Skins. “The global success of some of our South African swimming stars certainly has helped.”

The fact that swimming is more in the public eye thanks to the international achievements of SA swimmers — and many of them are Arena sponsored swimmers — has contributed to a considerable increase in the sales of their race suits, says Samantha Gunther of Leisure Holdings, local Arena distributor.

“Swimming is the sport that the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) is putting a huge emphasis on to win medals at the Olympics in London. Competitive swimming is also growing considerably thanks to the Midmar Mile,” Gunther adds.

The increased performance levels achieved by swimmers using the suits, is another reason for the growing demand among swimmers to swim in the new adjusted bodysuits, says Gary Doveton, of Dovetech Aquasport, local distributor of Yingfa and Slipstream swimwear.

“The majority of the swimmers have seen good results through using the bodysuits, therefore increasing demand,” expands Peter Baker of Action-ize, local distributor of TYR. He says there are definitely more competitive swimmers in SA, as there is more public awareness of swimming through Swim SA programmes like Learn to Swim and water-awareness and safety-campaigns.

But it is not only elite swimmers who are buying the bodysuits.

“The use of entry level suits has been instrumental in swimmers at the beginners’ level improving their times, and that can be used as leverage to sell more entry level suits,” adds Heimann. “The reaction has been phenomenal. We have sold double the volumes of entry level suits compared to elite suits.”

Cost of bodysuits

While few people can afford the expensive top-end racing suits, the mid-range suits are nowadays up to 50% cheaper and still offer the swimmer a competitive edge, says Doveton. Yingfa offers excellent racing suits at a very affordable price, he adds.

While the top-end suits range in price from R2 000–3 500 for girls, and from R1 000–2 000 for boys, the mid-range suits sell for from R700–1 200 for girls and from R400–800 for boys.

Doveton says not many swimmers will wear these suits at school galas, but it would be worn at club and provincial level.

There are two levels of Speedo-suits available. “Our premium suit, the one worn by (Michael) Phelps and which is considered one of the top-racing suits in the world, is the elite suit, and it is sold for R2 000 (for men) and R4 000 (for women),” explains Heimann. “But there is also an entry-level suit that retails at R700 for women and R400 for men.”

Arena also caters for all levels, from beginner to professional, and all markets — masters, open water to the competitive — with a range selling from approximately R750 to the top end at R2 500.

Second Skins locally manufacture FINA-approved and accredited swimsuits. “We are therefore able to control both the price and quality of our range,” says Rutherford.

“We decided to enter the market with a realistically priced option, because we felt that indefensibly excessive prices were charged by some imported brands.”

Peter Baker offers a different perspective on the prices of the bodysuits: “The prices haven't really dropped. They have actually stayed very much the same for the last three to four years, therefore making them more affordable.”

Retailers stock

Because the original bodysuits were aimed at elite swimmers — and were very expensive — distributors at first mainly supplied them to sponsored swimmers. Due to the growing demand, they started selling bodysuits at galas, where the demand grew and grew.

But, it is not a stock item found on most sport store shelves. Could retailers be missing out on a possible lucrative stock item?

The distributors have opposing views.

Gunther says there are definitely opportunities for retailers to sell their Arena race suits as they cater for differing levels, the price is very competitive, and it is a product in huge demand. Eleven stores of a major sports chain, for example, are currently selling Arena Powerskin suits around SA.

There is scope for retailers to sell the bodysuits, especially the mid-range racing suits, but the top-end suits are very expensive and most retailers will not be prepared to lay out the expense to keep stock, says Doveton. “There are some swimming shops that sell racing suits, but the major sports shops don’t stock racing suits. I have tried to introduce the mid-range racing suits (Yingfa) to a major sports chain, without success.”

The Speedo entry-level suit (LZR Comp) is made form a more affordable fabric and is currently sold in selected retail chains nationwide.

“These suits are very niche or specific to competitive swimmers,” says Heimann. Due to the specialised nature of the product one would be overshooting the gun if you advocated that retailers en mass stock these racing suits, she cautions. In many instances, swimmers have direct access to the racing suits via their club and therefore would direct their order through these select channels.

The scope for retailers to stock body suits will be enhanced if the growth in competitive swimming continues, says Rutherford. “At this stage we believe the general volume of customers willing to hand over significant money for these suits is still too small to justify general sportswear retailers carrying expensive, slow moving stock.”

According to Baker some speciality retailers do stock a few of their bodysuits, but most actually order as they receive requests. “These suits don’t sell as quickly as training suits and the cost for the retailers to carry stock at all times would be very high. The market is growing, but high investment and relatively low turnover is prohibitive for retailers.

Education and more specialist knowledge are the key factors that could enhance the sales of the suits, believes Baker. If retail staff members possessed more product knowledge on the suits, they would sell more. But representatives and sales staff required education on the fit and the care of garments.

Joe Schoeman, however believes that due to the limited number of competitive swimmers in SA the customer base for the sales of bodysuits is too small. “For example, there are 42 000 registered master swimmers in the US and only 600 master swimmers in SA, but even with that huge base, in the US tech suits are mostly sold in dedicated swim shops.”

Impact of bodysuits on records

In the first year after FINA banned the use of non-textile full bodysuits not one long-course record was set, reports Craig Lord in an article in the first online edition of the European aquatic LEN Magazine. This was the first time in FINA’s history since 1908 that there were no long course records.

Only four world short-course records were broken during 2010.

In comparison, LEN reports that the following records were set between February 2008 (when the Speedo LZR racer was launched) and January 1, 2010 when the rule changes were applied:

  • In all 70 individual swimming categories the world record improved by an average of 1.8%;

  • Men’s world records (across 35 events)improved by an average of 1.7% and women’s by an average 1.8%;

  • World records in the 34 individual longcourse events improved on average 1.6%;

  • Short course world records improved by 2% on average;

  • In individual freestyle the world record improved on average 2%, in butterfly 1.9%, backstroke 2.5% and in breaststroke records were improved by an average 1.9%.

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