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Are Sweats the New Black? How Athleisure Could Save Retail From a Total Meltdown

“One day we’ll be walking down the streets again,” proclaimed a Reformation marketing email delivered to consumers’ inboxes on Wednesday. “Without sweatpants,” the copy asserted daringly, beneath a photo of a sun-kissed, slip-dress-wearing model pouting prettily on a street corner.

While most of the country’s meaningful coronavirus containment measures—like mandatory work-from-home orders and city lockdowns—took effect just days ago, many Americans feel like they’ve been couch-bound for an eternity.

A future where shoppers strut the sidewalks freely in square-toed naked heels seems desperately out of reach. Instead, many Americans are hunkering down at home, swaddled in—you guessed it—sweatpants.

According to data from CommerceNext, about 55 percent of Americans have been given directives by their employers to work from home. An additional 39 percent have been handed the option to stop going into their offices as a means of containing the spread of the coronavirus.

In the wake of these changes to their daily routines, more than 60 percent of shoppers are wearing more casual apparel and active wear, according to a study released this week by Cotton Inc.

The vast majority (84 percent) said they were primarily looking for clothing made for comfort, like active, sleep and lounge apparel. More than three-quarters of shoppers said they were browsing these categories, and almost two-fifths said they’d purchased these items recently.

A Uniqlo email sent to shoppers on Sunday promised "loungewear perfect for your relaxing time at home."
A Uniqlo email sent to shoppers on Sunday promised “loungewear perfect for your relaxing time at home.” Uniqlo

Many shoppers are still settling into the socially distanced lifestyle, and it may be premature for retailers to assess the successes of lounge-and-athleisure-centered marketing strategies—especially as many Americans rein in their spending.

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A First Insight survey this week saw more than half of men and women saying the virus had changed their spending habits. A similarly positioned Coresight Research study showed that 12 percent of shoppers were buying less clothing, footwear and fashion accessories.

Nearly half of consumers fear economic disruption above all other issues in the time of COVID-19, and about two-thirds believe the impact of the disease could last anywhere from one to four months.

For brands and retailers contending with these odds, though, pertinent product positioning could be the ticket to riding out the storm.

At-Home Dressing

“Dressed to Zoom,” read the subject line of an emailed missive from British athleisure brand Sweaty Betty on Wednesday, referring to the video conferencing software that many are using to attend daily meetings as they labor in makeshift home offices.

The correspondence featured imagery of simple separates, jumpsuits and dresses designed to bridge the gap between sweats and suiting. “These all-in-one outfits take less than a minute to throw on,” the campaign claimed.

"Perfect for last-minute Zoom calls, movie marathons & afternoon naps," a Sweaty Betty email proclaimed.
“Perfect for last-minute Zoom calls, movie marathons & afternoon naps,” a Sweaty Betty email proclaimed. Sweaty Betty

This message has become a familiar one in recent weeks, with brands and retailers across categories attempting to handle the obvious challenges of the pandemic with mostly tactful cheer.

Every situation presents new opportunities to dress the part, they seem to say, and this dystopian drama is no different.

“Stay sexy indoors,” read a subject line from Underclub, while Coach made its attempt to bait clickers with “Good Reasons to Get Dressed Today.”

For most Americans, however, there really aren’t many good reasons to get dressed, and these efforts to entice are likely falling flat. CommerceNext data showed that one-quarter of shoppers anticipate spending less with direct-to-consumer brands over the next 12 months, while more than half say they’re likely to avoid luxury brand stores for the next year.

Retailers and brands with the appropriate products have pivoted almost entirely to pushing clothes that shoppers can actually wear now, not months down the line when fun plans and travel are rescheduled.

“$10 active bottoms—no one said you HAVE to work out to wear these,” wrote Old Navy with refreshing directness. An online exclusive sale promised leggings for kids and adults, ranging from $8 to $10.

According to yoga apparel label Alo Yoga, the appetite for athleisure styles may eclipse other categories, but it probably isn’t enough to keep businesses afloat during this turbulent time.

“Our online sales have increased year over year, however, with the closing of our brick-and-mortars this week, sales have come to a halt,” CEO Daniel Harris said.

“The biggest impact has been on our community,” he added, describing Alo Yoga’s stores as “sanctuaries” where “like-minded people gather for yoga and meditation.” The loss of that physical connectedness has impacted the brand measurably, he said.

Alo Yoga's bestselling AloSoft leggings.
Alo Yoga’s bestselling AloSoft leggings. Alo Yoga

E-commerce is a primary channel for sales, though, and the brand is doing its best to let shoppers know that Alo clothing is easily accessible with even more offerings online.

“There’s definitely an increased appetite for our fitness loungewear,” Harris said. Leggings and bra tops made with AloSoft, “a very soft, lived-in fabric” that customers describe as “buttery,” have been among the brand’s most popular products in recent weeks.

Kimberly Swarth, founder of workout apparel brand Onzie, agreed that sales for active and yoga apparel, as well as “cozy items,” are on the rise.

“People are at home working out, and want to have the right items on their body to feel good and empowered,” she said.

The brand is still seeing its strongest sales with traditional active styles, because, Swarth said, “so many women are home focusing on their health and wellness” as a means of “boosting their immunity” as well as “their mental well-being.”

She’s also seeing Onzie’s “softer styles” sell at a faster rate than usual. A waffle raglan pull over, along with a few hush puppy styles, have seen an uptick in the past few days. “Women are home and want to feel cozy but still sexy and feminine and in their bodies,” she said.

"Reset and recharge in the coziest sets," reads copy on
“Reset and recharge in the coziest sets,” Onzie says on its website. Onzie

Despite the increased interest, athleisure brands are far from immune to the effects of shutting down brick-and-mortar stores. “Of course we are tremendously impacted by the retail and studio closures that have taken affect globally,” Swarth said.

The small Los Angeles-based brand sells in many of the region’s yoga studios, which have all had to close their doors in recent weeks.

Onzie’s e-commerce site has seen a marked influx of traffic, Swarth said. “ has experienced an incredible uptick in last 10 business days,” she said.

“There is still a huge desire for our apparel and people are activating online,” she added, pointing to the brand’s social content as a means for consumers to stay inspired.

“Leggings, bra tops, active styles, soft dressing, layer pieces, athleisure, and loungewear are selling like crazy,” she said.

On Thursday, athletic wear giant Lululemon released its fiscal fourth-quarter earnings report for 2019, revealing largely favorable results. For the quarter ending on Feb. 2, the company said its online business grew 41 percent from the same period in fiscal 2018, while overall fourth-quarter revenue increased by 20 percent to $1.4 billion.

Lululemon has closed many of its 491 retail stores across the globe, including those in North America. CEO Calvin McDonald called the COVID-19-ravaged retail landscape an “extraordinary environment,” and indicated that the closures were currently impacting the brand’s business.

Home workouts on the rise

As consumers brace for what could be months of cabin fever, they’re proving their willingness to invest in health and wellness—even as other categories flounder. At-home workout services, apps and equipment have seen a boom in business since consumers have become increasingly confined to their dwellings.

Apparel brands and retailers are likely hoping the fitness fixation will stick, and that consumers will increasingly turn to them for athletic styles to complement their new, toned physiques.

An Instagram post from Athleta on Wednesday asked,"#HomeBodies, we want to know: How are you moving your body?"
An Instagram post from Athleta on Wednesday asked,”#HomeBodies, we want to know: How are you moving your body?” Athleta / @riva_g_

“We are seeing large increases in member signups across all platforms,” a spokesperson for DailyBurn told Sourcing Journal.

The digital platform, which houses fitness classes for a variety of activities available across web, mobile and TV apps, has seen a year-over-year increase in membership sales of more than 113 percent. In the past week alone, DailyBurn saw a 268 percent increase from the same period in 2019.

The company’s spokesperson said it’s meeting the influx of interest with special promotions. “We’re offering a 60-day free trial with premium access to new members and granting all current members premium access so they all have over 2,000 workouts to select from,” they said.

Exercise equipment and workout company Peloton, whose stationery bike ads launched the widely circulated Peloton Wife memes over the holidays, extended the regular 30-day free trial period for its app to 90 days, “in an effort to make it easier to access fitness and wellness content in these uncertain times,” a spokesperson said.

The company’s shares have reportedly performed well above the S&P 500 Index over the past month, though the spokesperson declined to share details on sales growth with Sourcing Journal.

Nike has also waived the subscription fee for its workout video streaming service, Nike Training Club (NTC) Premium. The platform, which features programs ranging from 15 minutes to an hour for a variety of sports and activities, is now free to download.

“We’re evolving as the world is evolving and we want you to stay healthy and active,” the company said in a statement on its website. “Enjoy on-demand class-style workouts, programs, and expert tips on nutrition, sleep, and more… until further notice.”

Adidas detailed a similar offering, touting “free premium access to our adidas Training and adidas Running apps globally.”

“Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be rolling out free virtual experiences across social and digital channels, to support our community as they stay active, practice mindfulness, learn, and seek entertainment,” Adidas said Wednesday, adding it’s “helping the hometeam keep our hearts, bodies and minds healthy through activities that can be done at home.”