“It was like a switch went off and I realized, oh my goodness, I have to go back into the world,” said Stokes, 31, a senior manager for an upscale luggage company. He has been working out of his Brooklyn apartment for the past year. “I can’t keep wearing this rotation of old college T-shirts and sweatpants.”
Consumers are buying — or at least browsing for — clothing and shoes, signaling growing optimism as life begins inching toward normal. Madewell and Anthropologie are seeing a resurgence in dress sales, while Bonobos reports rising demand for suits, dress shirts and tuxedos. Other retailers say they’ve noticed growing interest in trendy tops, wide-leg jeans, even resort wear and swimsuits, as Americans prepare to head back to the office, book summer vacations and make other post-vaccination plans.
The revived interest in apparel could be an early hint of the burst of spending that many economists expect to take hold as the country approaches herd immunity more quickly than anticipated and savings rates surge to new highs. President Biden’s administration is ahead of schedule in terms of its vaccine delivery goals, offering new hope of a swift and imminent economic recovery.
“All of a sudden apparel and footwear sales are starting to show some signs of life,” said Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst for market research firm NPD Group. “We have a vaccine, people are planning vacations and socializing again. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. And so what are people doing? They’re saying, ‘I need a new outfit. I need to feel good again. I need to feel alive and refreshed.’ ”
More than half of U.S. consumers plan to buy apparel in the coming months, making it the top category of anticipated spending, followed by footwear and beauty products, according to NPD.
Driving that enthusiasm, analysts say, is pent-up demand from more than a year of depressed spending. Clothing sales plummeted 86 percent in the first months of the pandemic and have yet to recover, federal data shows. In February, Americans spent $19.6 million at clothing and accessories stores, down 11 percent from a year earlier, according to the Commerce Department. Overall retail sales, meanwhile, grew 6.3 percent in that period.
The sudden uptick in demand — which is likely to be boosted by the latest round of $1,400 stimulus checks going out this week — has created fresh challenges for an industry upended by the pandemic. Many retailers are still struggling to anticipate consumer demand and spending patterns, while dealing with supply chain hiccups and shipping delays. The result, analysts say, has been an ongoing guessing game of what items will be popular, and when.
At Everlane, a clothing retailer known for ethically sourced staples, executives say they’ve seen rising demand for high-waisted denim and woven pants in the past few weeks, as well as increasing interest in blazers, tailored jackets, dresses and sandals. There’s been another big shift, too: Shoppers are gravitating toward bright colors and vibrant patterns.
“Prior to covid, black was always a top-selling color regardless of the item,” Sonia Martin, the company’s vice president of design, said in an email. Now “there is a sense of optimism and boldness in how people are shopping.”
As consumers venture back into shopping malls and fill online carts, retailers say they’re adjusting accordingly by ramping up orders for spring merchandise and displaying wide-leg jeans and colorful tops more prominently. They are also continuing to emphasize comfort. Bonobos, the men’s brand where weekly sales of tailored clothing are up an average 48 percent per week, is adding more casual, wrinkle-resistant pieces for work and weddings, according to chief executive Micky Onvural.
Meanwhile Express, the mall chain store known for outfitting young professionals, is doubling down on knit suits and “hyper stretch” chinos. Sales of suits, as well as dresses and tops, have picked up in the past several weeks, driven by brisk demand in states such as Florida and Texas that have loosened pandemic restrictions, according to chief executive Tim Baxter.
“What we’re seeing emerging — certainly in those states in the last couple of weeks, but across all states in the past week — is a resurgence of consumer demand for apparel and accessories,” he said. “We are beginning to see some pretty significant changes in consumer behavior.”
Store employees and managers, he said, have reported an increase in customers shopping for interview clothes, as well as outfits for Easter celebrations, graduations and weddings. The company has invested heavily in suits — black, navy and gray for men and black for women — in anticipation of a reopening surge.
But analysts caution a spike in spring and summer apparel sales isn’t likely to last. Retailers, they said, have to be prepared to dial back inventory quickly as an initial burst of demand wanes. There are still nearly 10 million fewer jobs than existed before the pandemic, and more than 4 million people left the labor force altogether, which could create more obstacles to a full recovery.
“Retailers have to be careful that they don’t think this is the total recovery because it’s not,” said Cohen of NPD. “It’s a false positive — there’s going to be a rush to go out, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to sustain at that level.”
Buying patterns have also shifted. While retailers used to promote inventory for the upcoming season — selling spring merchandise in the winter, for example — retailers say there’s an increasing focus on the immediate. After a year of so much uncertainty, consumers are treading carefully, buying only what they need now.
“We’re not thinking about traditional seasons anymore,” said Lori Coulter, chief executive of Summersalt, a women’s clothing brand known for its swimsuits. “We’re thinking about things month-to-month: what our customer needs in January, what she might need in February or June.”
The company, which expanded its loungewear, pajamas and underwear lines during the pandemic, has doubled down on bold florals, bright colors and whimsical patterns to appeal to consumers who are ready to make a statement. Sales of resort wear, summer dresses and pool coverups are also on the rise, as shoppers gravitate more toward vacation-focused swimwear than the functional and athletic pieces that were popular last summer.
“The consumer is ready to travel and experience joy, and is buying accordingly,” Coulter said.
At Anthropologie, the women’s clothing chain known for its bohemian-chic flair, executives said they were taken by surprise when dress sales suddenly picked up a few weeks ago. Dresses, which had become an afterthought during the pandemic, now account for seven of the 10 top-selling items on the retailer’s website.
“As we reached the end of February we saw a very distinct shift in consumer behavior,” chief executive Hillary Super said in an earnings call this month. “That was really driven by two things: dresses, dresses, dresses, and also a general shift to what I would call dressy casuals.”
Chain store American Eagle is selling more “fashion-oriented” jeans, in looser fits and higher rises, as well as “prettier tops in prettier silhouettes,” according to Jennifer Foyle, the company’s chief creative officer. The brand, she said, is moving away from fast-fashion into more comfortable basics that will endure for multiple seasons.
Sarah Hinde, 37, has spent the past year working from home exclusively in loungewear. Instead of buying clothes, she and her husband have focused on big-ticket purchases such as a Peloton exercise bike, a big-screen TV and weighted blankets.
But in the past week, encouraged by the pace of vaccinations and warming weather, Hinde says she’s begun planning for the future again — and buying clothes accordingly.
She ordered four dresses, some for work, others for family photos this spring, as well as jeans for her toddler and sneakers for her husband. Hinde, who hopes to be vaccinated by May, is also daydreaming about what to buy for a weekend getaway with her husband this summer, and a trip to Hawaii with her extended family in the fall. But, she said, she’s out of practice and feels overwhelmed by the prospect of having to buy clothes and piece together outfits again.
“After a whole year of living in sweats, it’s almost intimidating,” said Hinde, a public affairs consultant who lives near Minneapolis. “It’s like, who am I going to be when I enter the world again? I don’t want to look like I’m trying too hard, but also after being so comfortable for the last year, I just can’t see myself going back to things like high heels.”
Back in Brooklyn, Stokes, who used to buy clothes and shoes weekly, says he’s relishing shopping again. Even so, he keeps gravitating toward comfortable items like oversized sweatpants and jogger sets.
“I have to keep reminding myself: Buy clothes you’d wear to dinner,” he said. “I’ve dumbed down my outfits for so long — the same underwear, sweatpants and T-shirts — that I don’t even know who I am with fashion anymore. What do I like? What’s my vibe? It’s a whole new world out there.”