The early pandemic results are in from both lululemon athletica (NASDAQ:LULU) and Nike (NYSE:NKE), and there's a clear winner when it comes to big-picture operating trends.

The yoga-inspired apparel specialist managed healthier sales results and even generated a modest profit during some of the worst selling months in the industry. Nike, meanwhile, was hit harder by store closures in places like Europe and the U.S. and had to take a big inventory writedown charge as some products missed their seasonal demand windows.

Below, we'll compare the performance of the two athleisure growth stocks with an eye toward finding the better bet heading into the next phase of the pandemic.

Sales and profits

While both companies were pressured by store closures, Nike took the bigger hit this past quarter. Revenue fell 38% in the three-month period ended May 31, while Lululemon's sales dipped just 17% in its fiscal first quarter which endded May 3. The two giants each excelled in the digital sales channel, which was up 70% at Lululemon and 79% at Nike. Yet Nike's reliance on retailing partners like department stores and malls amplified its shortfall. Shipments to these customers dove 50% during store closures, management said.

A woman holding a yoga pose.

Image source: Getty Images.

As you might expect, the harder sales hit affected Nike's profitability compared to its smaller peer. Gross profit margin decreased over eight full percentage points to 37.3%. Lululemon's comparable metric fell by 260 basis points to 51.3% of sales. The consumer company benefited from the fact that fewer of its products are seasonal, which allowed it to avoid the writedown charges that hit Nike and many other retailers. It eked out a profit in the most recent quarter while Nike reported a $790 million loss.

Inventory and liquidity

Neither company is approaching anything that might resemble a cash crunch, but there are enough red flags to go around for earnings pressure over the short term. Nike saw its inventory jump 31% even after it took an obsolescence charge and cut prices on some products. Lululemon's holdings rose even faster, up 41% as the company maintained its purchasing pace despite the sales shortfall.

In addition to the leaner inventory, investors might like the fact that Nike's global portfolio gives it more stability heading into the next phase of the pandemic. After all, it quickly returned to growth in China, its second biggest market after the U.S.

In contrast, Lululemon's sales footprint is more heavily tilted toward North America and the U.S. in particular. That exposure could dampen its results if outbreaks continue to affect the U.S. into the fall, even as the COVID-19 threat fades in places like China, Europe, and Japan.

Stretch for Lululemon

Still, while both businesses are likely to see strong global growth long term, Lululemon looks like the better bet today. Its flexible store footprint and greater reliance on e-commerce sales gives it more control over purchase points at a time when shopping trends should continue changing rapidly. Fewer seasonal product releases also means lower risks around inventory and earnings shortfalls.

The biggest question regarding its rebound is whether management made the right call to keep inventory flowing into its system this past quarter. Investors will get their answer by tracking gross profit margin -- and watching for writedown charges -- in Lululemon's fiscal second quarter report in early September.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.