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Apparel retailers look for fit in world of wearables


A few years ago, the Fitbit exploded onto the wearables market, and the idea that you could track your physical data throughout the day became the latest fad for health buffs.

Today, there are many versions of these activity trackers, and it’s common to see friends brag about their activity through updates on Facebook. As activity trackers have gained popularity en masse, they have also changed the conversation about what was once both personal and private—one’s health—into a hip, social and communal movement with important long-term implications for the apparel industry.

Personal trainers have found that the wearable devices are a great way to incentivize their clients and keep them on track throughout the day. Activity trackers have been popular corporate holiday gifts within small- to medium-sized businesses, because they provide a way for colleagues to bond through office fitness competitions. Suddenly, it’s okay for one’s personal health to be public knowledge, and fitness is both hip and fashionable.

Currently, most wearable devices used for fitness and sports are some version of a fitness band. Bands represent the second-largest market for wearables, with approximately $1.8 billion in sales this past year. According to ABI Research, about 32 million sports and fitness wristbands were shipped in the last twelve months. But will activity trackers have a long-term stickiness? One of the issues with these devices is that after a while, users stop using them. Once the novelty wears off (even now one could argue they’re well past the shiny new toy stage), will people still want to constantly monitor their health through wearables that aren’t a part of their daily wardrobe?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is driving the push toward a completely connected world of seamlessly integrated tech, from our home to our car to our clothing, but is fitness tech really driven by IoT? We find that drivers within fitness tech are less about connectivity, and more about the application of practical uses to the sometimes-gimmicky wearables world. For example, Under Armour’s recent $475 million acquisition of fitness-information-sharing app MyFitnessPal and $85 million acquisition in January of Endomondo (after having previously acquired MapMyFitness)—both platforms rather than device makers—marks a new, more personal and lifestyle-driven approach to reaching the consumer.

Between 2008 and 2013, global sales of performance, outdoor and sports apparel grew 20%, while sports footwear advanced 23%, according to Euromonitor International. That outpaced the respective 15% and 19% growth of overall apparel and footwear sales over that same period. Fitness tech apparel is now taking center stage, in large part to meet a quickly growing need in the athletic and sportswear apparel market, which industry research firm Statista expects to reach approximately $152 billion globally in 2015. Athletic wear has become the new casual wear, and women especially are strong adopters of the “Lululemon lifestyle.” This has created a huge opportunity for health tech to integrate organically into apparel, and in turn drive new innovations from the health care and health-monitoring markets.

Technology is also increasingly being woven into fabrics for clothing not specific to athletic wear. There are multiple textile companies experimenting with integrating tech into material for everyday use. Taking fitness a step further into health monitoring and health care, conductive fabrics are being developed that can pick up electrical activity from the cardiac muscle.

Fraunhofer FitnessSHIRT tracks medial and performance measures including heart rate, respiratory activity, arterial oxygen saturation, posture and movement, and can be adjusted to the individual wearer. Ultimately, our clothing could help us adjust and maintain a healthy diet and warn us when our body might soon experience a medical emergency such as a heart attack.

Research and development teams have also been exploring ways to create clothing for first responders, military and some blue-collar industries. These “fitness” items would have very practical uses, such as bullet-resistant vests that also monitor the heart rate and other physical responses to a stressful environment; or heat-resistant clothing that cools from the inside when the temperature becomes too extreme, as in a fire. Smart nanomaterials are being developed that will react to chemical and biological agents, as well as immediately communicating that data. Sensors are being developed that can detect the presence of cancer or blood clots, and also respond to injuries.

As fitness tech becomes more sophisticated, the challenge may become too much information. Do we want to literally wear our medical stats on our sleeves? How will we really feel when our smart belt tells us it’s time to get up and walk around because we’ve been inactive for too long?

The major challenges in fitness tech will come down to privacy of data and the unobtrusive blending of tech into clothing. Ultimately, fitness tech will drive sales and increase margins for retailers, building on organic growth in the community of early adopters.

Deborah Weinswig is executive director of the Fung Business Intelligence Centre where she heads the firm’s Global Retail and Technology research team, a think tank focused on emerging retail and tech trends. Weinswig is a former top Wall Street and retail technology analyst viewed as a leading authority on emerging technologies.

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