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What School Opening Delays Mean to Denim Brands’ Back-to-School Season

If the first half of 2020 is any indication of how this year’s back-to-school season will be, denim brands should expect the unexpected.

Despite the fashion industry’s positive back-to-school season in 2019—research from NPD Group indicated back-to-school were up for the first time since 2015—the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench at the upward trend and squashed all hopes that this year could be equally successful. As certain parts of the U.S. see a record number of coronavirus cases, school reopenings, as well as the back-to-school denim shopping season, remain in flux.

For optimists, this means back-to-school shopping will simply be on a different time table this year. While the majority of back-to-school clothes shopping happens in July and August, the potential delay in schools reopening is causing consumers to drag their feet on spending.

“The situation with COVID-19 changes daily, so I’m sure consumers will watch to see the ETA of school systems opening up before investing in a new school wardrobe,” said Ryan Lombard, PR manager and creative producer for sustainable denim brand DL1961.

That prediction is in line with recent data from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Prosper Insights & Analytics, which conducted a survey of 7,481 consumers showing respondents had only completed around 17 percent of their shopping by early July. Many attributed the delay to not yet knowing what they will need for the school year, though expected spending on computers and electronics is seeing significant gains as many prepare for distance learning.

This year’s uncertainty—coupled with an anticipated record spending on school supplies—poses the question of whether consumers will include apparel in their back-to-school budget.

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Some experts predict consumers will make smaller, more frequent purchases rather than do all of their back-to-school shopping at once. Data from TrueFit’s Fashion Genome showed that while retailers’ web traffic was up 48 percent and total number of orders were up 46 percent year-over-year in June, order value was down. This consumer behavior could be a result of steep discounts many brands and retailers offered that month, according to Kristine Englert, TrueFit’s director of enterprise marketing.

Denim brands and researchers weigh in on what school opening delays mean for apparel’s historically successful back to school season.
Blu & Blue children’s denim Courtesy

But while that was the pattern during the month of June, it doesn’t necessarily mean the same will hold true for back-to-school season.

Cotton Incorporated’s recent back-to-school Lifestyle Monitor survey showed that shoppers plan on spending more on apparel, albeit on fewer items. According to the report, apparel shoppers plan to spend about $340 (up 12 percent from 2019) on clothes per person. But when their shopping lists were broken down, they showed just four pairs of jeans as opposed to five in 2019; eight shirts as opposed to 11 in 2019; six undergarments as opposed to 10 in 2019; and so on.

Throughout all of the data, there is one common denominator: consumers are turning to digital methods to make purchases for back-to-school, and brands are already seeing an uptick in their online business.

“I think online will definitely increase more this season,” Lombard said. “Our [e-commerce] businesses with our major retailers actually increased year-over-year for Spring/Summer ’20.”

The news could serve as a glimmer of hope for brands, as many have experienced significant challenges. Lombard, who noted the 2019 back-to-school season was the best in DL1961’s 12-year history, said this season’s success is heavily reliant on outside factors.

Similarly, children’s denim brand Blu & Blue took a hard hit with COVID-19 and is in need of a lucrative back-to-school season.

“With our in-house manufacturing facility in India, the past few months have been ones of immense uncertainty,” said Blu & Blue founder Aaina Jain Malik. “COVID-19 is the worst crisis we have ever experienced and has impacted the fashion retail industry tremendously. Shortfall of workers, shutdown of retail stores, cancelled orders and limited consumer spending have all impacted business.”

Still, the brand remains optimistic that its bestsellers, including embellished jeans, classic chambray shirting, colored denim and denim jackets, will carry it through the tumultuous year.

Experts predict comfort and loungewear will be popular for the back to school season, and urge denim brands to double down on stretch.

“While there are so many unknowns for the upcoming school year, there are a few things that are a safe bet: comfort and casual will continue to dominate the next few months and kids will continue to grow,” said Maria Rugolo, apparel industry analyst for NPD.

“Therefore, clothing that addresses these two statements are where parents will invest their dollars when it comes to the next school year,” she continued. “Categories like jeans can benefit through stretch properties to play up comfort while denim shorts can play up a more indoor, year-round casual style, if remote or online learning is incorporated into next year’s curriculum.”