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NPD: Retail Needs Shoe Shoppers to ‘Participate in Experiences’ Again

The ongoing pandemic is making it difficult for shoe retailers to figure out what U.S. shoppers want, according to Beth Goldstein, executive director and industry analyst for fashion, accessories and footwear at the NPD Group.

Shoppers have “settled into lifestyles that are more centered around the home than ever before,” she wrote in a new research post, adding that the nature of the workplace may have changed for good. Omicron forced many companies to revise their return to work plans. The highly contagious Covid-19 variant also affected many consumers’ social and travel plans. “These factors will drive the evolution of the fashion footwear and accessories markets in 2022,” Goldstein wrote.

Evolving offerings

According to NPD’s October Omnibus survey, one-third of U.S. consumers said they anticipated returning to a physical workplace up to three days per week, while 40 percent said they did not have plans to return or know when their office might reopen. “This hybrid dynamic, along with the record number of people who have left the workforce (notably women), points to a permanent shift in fashion priorities for U.S. workers,” Goldstein said.

The cultural shift is likely to influence dress codes, and the casualization trend infiltrating workplaces before the pandemic is on track not just to continue but also accelerate. NPD’s Future of Footwear study showed that more than 50 percent of consumers wear casual sneakers to work, while less than 20 percent sport dress styles. “The concepts of ‘comfort’ and ‘casual’ will continue to drive sales,” Goldstein said.

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Slippers and outdoor styles were big sellers during the pandemic disruption of 2020. While fashion footwear, handbags and luggage saw some renewed interest last year, sales remain well below 2019 levels. If the industry is going to see a full recovery, “these industries need consumers to participate in experiences,” Goldstein said.

That’s possible this year, though there will likely be “some bumps along the road” as the pandemic evolves, she added. But even as the industry begins to see an uptick in spending, “the categories benefitting will likely differ from those that benefitted in the past.” However, “active experiential” categories to support walking and hiking are expected to remain strong.

Goldstein believes retailers this year will focus more on “depth than breadth,” opting to tighten assortments and prioritize best-selling products. In order to be successful, they will need to balance the consumer’s “buy-now-wear-now” mindset with uncertain delivery times, and pricing and promotion decisions are likely to be “more fluid than they have been in the past.”

Continued digital influence

E-commerce skyrocketed throughout the pandemic, but the question now has evolved beyond “website versus brick-and-mortar,” Goldstein said. Today’s shoppers are becoming acquainted with new digital retail touchpoints.

“In 2022, we’ll continue to see the development of livestreaming and other forms of social selling,” Goldstein said, “as well as avatars, augmented and virtual reality, and artificial intelligence.” Brands have accelerated their adoption of digital fit tools that allow shoppers to virtually try-on clothes before buying, as well as AI experiences that allow them to visualize products in 3D.

Progress will also continue in the omnichannel realm, she added, as consumers continue to prioritize convenience. The pandemic saw the widespread adoption of BOPIS, curbside pickup, virtual styling, contactless checkout and other measures designed to save shoppers time and prioritize their health and safety.

While these advancements suggest that pandemic-era retail contingency plans are still influencing forward-looking strategy, Goldstein said the industry is “at a different place than one year ago.”

“Overall, these markets have recovered from their low points in 2020 and continued growth is expected in 2022,” she said, though “there will likely be some headwinds during the trip, causing brands and retailers to take the occasional step back.”