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Activewear Isn’t Going Anywhere, so Brands Must Learn to ‘Fit in There’

Shoppers are going to shop and consumers are going to consume. Translation? Don’t expect people to use clothing the way it’s designed, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market-research firm NPD Group.

Speaking at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York last week, Cohen raised the subject of activewear, a segment that currently boasts 25 percent of total apparel sales and is forecast to boom through 2019. Somewhere on the way to the gym, people decided that leggings, tank tops, sports bras and hoodies counted as everyday garb. As it stands, 61 percent of women who admit they never exercise say they wear active apparel 48 percent of the time, he said. They’re not sweating it, but brands should.

“This isn’t Nike saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to dress Americans in activewear,’” Cohen said. “This isn’t Lululemon saying, ‘We’re going to have everybody wearing yoga pants even if they don’t know what the downward dog is.’ This is consumer saying, ‘We’re going to use the product the way we want to use it.’”

The surge in athleisure’s popularity has created ripples in other sectors, too. When the footwear market ticked up by 7 percent in the first half of 2018, growth was driven by gains in casual footwear such as sneakers—“the things to wear with active apparel, no surprise there,” he said.

Certainly consumers want to travel in activewear. Cohen laughingly described how catching a flight now feels like he’s “headed to an Olympic event. Everybody is dressed to run a marathon.”

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And, indeed, Americans are taking more trips than ever. Domestic and foreign airlines servicing the United States carried 965 billion passengers in 2017, up 3.4% from 2016, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

“Passenger counts are setting all kinds of new records,” Cohen said. “Consumers are clearly telling us they would rather travel than acquire. They’d rather build memories than wardrobes. And with that comes a whole change and shift in the lifestyle.”

There’s a palpable shift in the air, Cohen asserted. Whether it’s Netflix and chilling or cooking up storms with their Instant Pots, millennials are spending more time at home than previous generations, which means they want to cozy down in their nests. Americans, as a whole, are dining out less and eating at home more, sourcing 82 percent of their meals from their own kitchens. Comfort and self-care have become not just consumer bywords but mantras.

The businesses finding success in retail today are the ones that have figured out how to “marry into the lifestyle of the consumer,” Cohen said.

“This is the reality,” he added. “We have to learn how to fit in there.”

And brands must figure out how to meet the needs of their customers, not by capitalizing on omnichannel, but rather “omnipresence” and what he calls the “endless aisle.”

“The world has gotten smaller,” Cohen said. “It’s now critical for retail to offer more products than a finite retail store space can house; to marry online and in-store. To allow people to go in, and if they don’t find what they want, be able to get it delivered by the next day or even in the same day.”