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Consumers Are Chasing the #sweatlife at Home—What Does This Mean for Athletic Retailers?

A prolonged period of coronavirus quarantine coupled with widespread gym closures has rejuvenated consumer interest in feeling the burn in the confines of their homes.

Relative to pre-pandemic numbers, 70 percent more U.S. consumers are now interested in pursuing the #sweatlife at home, according to an NPD Checkout survey gauging fitness trends and changing behaviors. What’s more, the survey says the number of consumers watching exercises classes online or through mobile apps has increased twofold, which NPD Group vice president and senior sports industry advisor Matt Powell believes could bode well for retailers selling sports-ready apparel and footwear.

“I expect we will see a renewed and heightened interest in wellness and fitness post-pandemic,” Powell wrote in a blog post. “In addition to the lockdown providing a greater incentive for people to exercise at home or be active in the open air, I believe this illness has also motivated people to adopt healthier habits.”

In its own survey, consumer intelligence research firm CivicScience found that people in the U.S. say they’re now engaging in fitness activities more than they were just a few months ago, Powell noted, before the coronavirus brought life as they knew it to a screeching halt. Plus, CivicScience documented consumers’ strengthening brand loyalty as the pandemic unfolded, driven perhaps by shoppers’ desire to purchase more purposefully and pragmatically.

These shifting consumer behaviors, attitudes and habits could affect brands’ product assortments going forward, Powell suggested.

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“For example, we may see a shift away from sport lifestyle footwear to a more versatile and multipurpose performance shoe,” he wrote, adding that footwear targeting the running crowd “will likely see resurgence.”

The revival Powell foresees might already be underway.

Earlier this month, dual-gender lifestyle shoe maker Cole Haan dipped its toes into the performance waters with the release of a pair of running sneakers that president David Maddocks described as suitable for “work or working out, or both.” Allbirds, meanwhile, decided the middle of an economically crippling pandemic was the right time to break into the running game, dropping the performance-driven Tree Dasher sneaker for men and women in early May. The release marked the sustainable upstart’s first foray beyond the lifestyle sector within footwear.

Though footwear companies continue to innovate, the pandemic has undermined sales across the sports-garb landscape. The extra $600-per-week unemployment benefit that many out-of-work consumers have relied on throughout the economic downturn may have temporarily boosted sales in the early months of the crisis, Powell said, suggesting softer sales could lie ahead when the payments are set to expire in July.

On the other hand, consumers have pulled back their outlay on travel and have no events like concerts and ballgames to attend, given the risk of virus exposure. Without these expenditures, people might have more income left for discretionary spending on products like athletic apparel and sports shoes.

Regardless, digital retail kept the sector afloat during store shutdowns and will retain its hold on the consumer’s wallet even when retail returns to its former glory—or something like it. According to NPD Data, two-thirds of April’s U.S. athletic shoe sales happened online, Powell wrote. “Of course, as stores re-open, this ratio will likely come down,” he added, “but during the crisis many consumers learned new ways to buy products on the internet.”

Both Hibbett Sports and Dick’s Sporting Goods seized the opportunity to drive e-commerce sales with store-based fulfillment during the COVID-19 crisis. Each retailer implemented curbside pickup service at the beginning of the pandemic, for example. Powell believes consumers who learned to purchase goods this way won’t quickly forget once stores are cleared for business.

“We can expect retailers and brands with excellent e-commerce platforms to thrive, and the opposite outcome for those that don’t have catchy, user-friendly websites,” he wrote.

This will create competition among brands and foster stronger investment in direct-to-consumer activities for retailers, which will become even more critical considering many consumers are still hesitant to return to stores.

CivicScience found that only 25 percent of consumers who shop with the Academy chain expect they’ll be ready to visit one of its stores in one to four months’ time and only half see themselves making a trip to a brick-and-mortar location more than four months into the future.

The survey yielded similarly worrying results for Academy’s competitors. Customers of Finish Line and Foot Locker harbor concerns in the same vein, with just 40 percent willing to shop their stores within four to 16 weeks, Powell wrote, while nearly one-third won’t risk it until more than four months out. “Based on the poll, Dick’s Sporting Goods has the most favorable outlook,” he added, “with about half saying they would shop soon and 30 percent saying in one to four months.”

Though many companies are eager to reopen their cash-cow physical stores, they have a rocky road ahead in restoring business to its pre-pandemic luster. Recent earnings reports document the renewed focus on nurturing digital channels.

Hibbett Sports’ comparable brick-and-mortar sales in Q1 plummeted 34 percent while e-commerce leapt by 110.5 percent in the quarter, driving 22.3 percent of net sales. Dick’s documented similar results, with digital sales expanding by 210 percent in the quarter while net sales decreased by 30.6 percent. Shoe Carnival reported a triple-digit increase in e-commerce sales when it shared its financial results in March.

The path to recovery may be a long one but brands including both Adidas and Nike have reported positive results from the Greater China region, where business has returned to something resembling normal. Adidas has returned to positive revenue growth in the region, thanks to improving in-store sales and “exceptional” e-commerce growth, while Nike leaned on its digital ecosystem such that regional revenue dipped just 4 percent while 75 percent of its doors were closed.