“Consumers are finally starting to show interest in jeans again,” said Marshal Cohen, an adviser for NPD. “The fact that we’re seeing more relaxed fits, more comfortable styles, is what’s getting people to say, ‘Okay, I have a reason to buy jeans again.’"
After four straight years of decline, the U.S. denim market grew 2.2 percent to $16.7 billion last year, according to Euromonitor.
Today’s shoppers, he said, are looking for utilitarian and practical styles, like high-rise, straight-leg “mom jeans,” in place of tightly fitting, low-rise cuts that have dominated the market for so long. Jeans are becoming more comfortable, too, as companies use elastic and materials with stretch to win over legging-loving shoppers.
“There’s a lot more variety than there used to be,” said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst for Forrester. “Today’s denim is more comfortable and versatile than what we’ve traditionally seen."
When they do buy jeans, shoppers are increasingly looking for a deal on denim. More than half of the jeans bought last year had been marked down, according to NPD. Sales of jeans at off-price retailers like Nordstrom Rack and TJ Maxx rose 30 percent last year, accounting for much of the growth in the market.
“It’s that mid-level market that’s winning over the consumer,” Cohen said. “We’re not seeing $300-plus denim selling the way it used to.”
Designer denim, which has fallen out of favor in recent years, continues to take a back seat to more moderately priced options. Specialty stores including American Eagle Outfitters, H&M and TopShop — where prices typically range from about $20 to $60 — continued to sell about one-third of all women’s jeans.
American Eagle alone sold more than $1 billion worth of jeans in 2018, making it the country’s top brand for women’s jeans, according to company executives, who credited the sales growth to new styles, silhouettes and fabrics.
“Our jeans business has strengthened dramatically over the past few years,” Chad Kessler, the company’s global brand president, said in an earnings call with analysts last month. “We continue to see a ton of opportunity for further growth.”
Meanwhile, revenue at iconic jeans company Levi Strauss & Co. rose 14 percent to $5.6 billion in 2018, driven in part by the sale of women’s skinny jeans and high-rise cuts. The company recently brought back its engineered jeans, a cult favorite from the 1990s, and introduced its “highest rise yet,” called rib cage jeans, which sell for $98.
The majority of women’s jeans — 80 percent of them — continue to be purchased in stores, according to NPD. But online denim purchases — which grew 32 percent last year — are quickly gaining ground and becoming an increasingly valuable market for retailers. Shoppers who bought jeans online were more likely to spend more and buy more frequently than their in-store counterparts, NPD found.
We “are really excited about the strong consumer response thus far,” Chip Bergh, Levi Strauss’s chief executive, said in an earnings call last week.
“The denim consumer has changed,” Cohen said. “We are starting to cycle back into jeans."