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What Will Consumers Spring for This Year? Versatile Comfort and ‘Workleisure’

Though apparel spending has largely suffered during the pandemic, the activewear category has managed to grow.

The well-documented trend has driven a swath of retailers to invest in the category in recent months. Last week, JCPenney relaunched its Xersion activewear assortment, marking the first time the mass merchant has revamped the line since its introduction in 2008. In thje fall, Kohl’s announced its new private-label activewear line FLX, PacSun launched PacSun Active and Madewell introduced its first-ever athleisure collection.

Data indicates that the activewear consumer typically invests more into apparel. According to Maria Rugolo, a director and apparel industry analyst at the NPD Group, activewear shoppers currently spend 11 percent more per purchase compared to consumer who aren’t buying activewear. These consumers, she added, also spent more on both men’s and women’s activewear in 2020 compared to the prior year, and less on non-active apparel.

The key to apparel’s success, Rugolo said, is “versatility plus comfort.” She described the ongoing comfort movement as driven by four key themes: work-from-home routines, an emphasis on stress relief, health and wellness efforts and a years-long casualization shift.

“Gone are the days of stiff, uncomfortable fashion; today we say hello to comfort power categories,” Rugolo wrote last week in a blog post. “New terms like ‘workleisure’ are not to be confused with sleepwear or gym attire, nor is it synonymous with ‘traditional career wear.’ Rather, it is a trend towards a lot of expandable waistbands and stretch to help us cope with our new [work-from-home] lifestyles.

Within activewear, retail market intelligence firm Edited highlighted the potential for outerwear. Kayla Marci, a market analyst with the firm, said the sub-segment “will be a core trend for winter 2021 as consumers look to reconnect with nature and as ‘adventurecore’ becomes mainstream.”

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Like NPD, Edited sees evidence of continued success within the running and hiking categories this year. The number of products designed for running or jogging that have sold out 100 percent of SKUs online is up 15 percent this month over the same period last year, Edited said. Sell-outs for sneakers described with “trail” are up 31 percent year-over-year, it added.

Still, Marci said virtual workouts shouldn’t be ignored. “At-home exercise will remain routine in many consumers’ day-to-day life for convenience, as well as with remote working remaining a lifestyle shift to stay even in a post-pandemic future,” she said. “However, savvy retailers are pivoting their communications by incorporating outdoor activities that can be done at a distance, as well as evolving and updating any fitness apps, partnerships and online classes to remain relevant when gyms eventually reopen.”

As wellness and self-care become increasingly important to consumers, investment in yoga apparel has surged. According to Edited, products designated for yoga at pure-play active retailers grew 36 percent year over year in 2020 in the U.S. and U.K., with the number of men’s items climbing 45 percent.

Edited also touted the strength of loungewear. According to the firm, the number of loungewear products stocked by activewear brands has grown 14 percent from a year ago. “Smart activewear stockists know it’s just as essential to promote relaxing in sweatpants as breaking a sweat,” Marci noted.

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As consumers continue to demand greater diversity in retail and fashion, modest and adaptive apparel should not be ignored. “Keep wheelchair-friendly cuts, wider neck and armholes, and adjustable footwear in mind for activewear,” Marci advised. “With consumers experiencing a new wave of social activism, they will not respond well to exclusion. Retailers need to service and celebrate consumers at all stages of their lives and make activewear products accessible to everyone.”

Edited has also observed significant growth in sustainable activewear. Recycled styles doubled from 10 percent of total activewear arrivals from January to September 2019 to 20 percent during the same period last year, Marci said.

The downward trend in average selling prices—Edited reported a 3 percent decline at U.S. sports retailers in August compared to six months earlier—has continued into 2021. Currently, tank tops are 4 percent cheaper than a year ago, while outerwear is 6 percent and performance sneakers are 7 percent, Marci said. Essentials like leggings and sports bras, however, are on the rise. Inflated by new styles at Ultracor and Lululemon that run for more than $100, sports bras are up 2 percent compared to a year ago, while leggings have risen 3 percent, according to Edited.

In-store heads for recovery in 2021

The final shopping push of the holiday season brought season-to-date retail growth to 2 percent compared to the same 13-week period a year ago, NPD reported.

The last two weeks of 2020, inching into 2021, each brought 13 percent year-over-year sales growth, it said. In-store purchase activity the week of Christmas slipped only 2 percent, making it the strongest year-over-year comparison for the channel since store closures in March. Overall purchases posted their strongest year-on-year comp in the final week of the year, boosted by the strongest online purchasing bump, 49 percent, since Amazon’s Prime Day sales event in October.

“Last-minute shopping was alive and well during Holiday 2020, and it’s not over yet,” Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief industry advisor, retail, said in a statement. “As gift card redemption and returns kick in through mid-January, not to mention post-season gifting delays amid delivery and gathering restrictions, the true holiday shopping season will continue to expand beyond any traditional measurement.”

During Christmas week, video game hardware and PCs were among the items that drove the largest year-over-year dollar growth, NPD said. Coming in at the No. 5 and 6 slots overall, sweatshirts and sleepwear led the way within apparel.

Looking to the current year, Cohen predicted e-commerce will sustain growth, to a degree. Industries that saw a 40 percent to 50 percent lift in online sales last year over 2019 “are likely to see growth closer to 20 percent over 2019” this year, he said.

“The consumer’s pent up demand for in-store shopping will most certainly drive traffic back to stores once the country re-opens and confidence in the safety of doing so returns,” Cohen wrote in a blog post Tuesday. “Combine this with the shipping delay and fulfillment challenges e-commerce has faced, particularly late in 2020, and the online channel will need to find ways to reinforce its value to the consumer in the evolving shopping environment of 2021.”

Though Cohen said stimulus money “played a big part” in helping drive retail through 2020 and some additional federal funds assistance in early 2021 is likely, he cautioned that it isn’t something businesses should count on. “Retail needs to plan as though that consumer assistance won’t be there, and any that does come will be icing on the cake,” he said.

“The biggest difference between 2021 and 2020 is that we have the benefit of knowing from the start that the year will be riddled with uncertainty, and retail can use that knowledge to fuel preparations and anticipate the need for agility,” he added.