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Lounge Versus Active: Search Data Shows What Consumers Want to Wear

As the pandemic’s influence wanes, consumer appetites are beginning to shift toward pre-Covid product preferences.

StyleSage says new data indicates that the era of loungewear may be coming to a close. Meanwhile, activewear and athleisure styles have remained steady drivers for apparel over the course of the past year—and their market prominence may even be on the rise, according to the fashion retail analytics platform’s Activewear: State of the Industry 2021 report.

Searches for leisure staples like sweatpants and sweatshirts, which had been the de facto pandemic uniform for many consumers, have fallen off this year. Meanwhile, customer queries for sports bras have skyrocketed by 150 percent from October 2020 numbers.

The activewear category—along with most apparel and footwear—saw a dip in interest early last year, driving deep discounts at retail. But by Q3, with factories buzzing again and consumers largely stuck at home, interest in easy-wearing products like leggings returned in full force. Premium-priced athleticwear items in particular sold out at higher rates than other categories, and bounced back quickly from an early period of discounting. Meanwhile, mass market and mid-range performance gear both recovered from periods of depressed sell-outs, closing out 2020 at pre-pandemic levels.

Sneakers grew in sell-outs throughout the pandemic, though the active footwear category has seen a slight decrease during 2021. Across the globe, searches for fashionable athletic shoes are growing at a higher rate than performance styles, suggesting that shoppers are still attracted to the active aesthetic, but might want to wear their sporty gear more casually this season. Consumers are searching for Diesel sneakers and “chunky” sneakers 150 percent more than they did in April of last year, while Golden Goose nearly doubled its search volume during the same time period.

Notably, apparel and footwear products that were marked “sustainable” failed to sell out at a rate that met their introductions to the market, StyleSage wrote, “indicating that activewear that’s sustainable isn’t necessarily top priority for consumers.” Eco-conscious sneakers were the most common new sustainable offerings at retail, it added.

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In addition to going green, activewear brands added to their size ranges, promoting greater inclusivity. Between Q1 of 2020 and the first quarter of this year, retailers like Puma and Lululemon upped their size ranges by about 20 percent, while Nike saw a modest increase of between 5 and 10 percent. Top categories for inclusive sizing were skirts and skorts (48 percent), shorts (47 percent), dresses (43 percent) and bras (42 percent).

Price slashing proliferated during 2020 as retailers strained to move product. Mass market athleticwear saw the highest discount penetration in Q1, StyleSage said, with items sold at an average of 50 percent off their MSRPs—a number that saw little improvement in the second quarter. Meanwhile, mid-range performance apparel fared even worse, with discounts skyrocketing during Q2 to an average of 64 percent. Those numbers began to soften throughout the back half of the year, however, and have since recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

Certain styles, like performance tops and active outerwear, were discounted heavily throughout 2020, seeing less interest from shoppers than other athleticwear items. “This is an interesting phenomenon: even as many people took to the outdoors for activities and exercise, perhaps they opted to use existing pieces to do so,” StyleSage wrote. Other categories, like sneakers and sports bras, retained their value to shoppers, and were often offered at full price. Notably, men’s activewear products, especially pants and sneakers, were discounted more frequently than women’s throughout 2020, defying pre-pandemic trends.

In addition the fluctuations in consumer confidence, supply chain disruptions roiled the sector during the early months of the Covid crisis, impacting production and slowing new introductions at retail. The mass market space saw a large drop in new product during Q2, with just 20 percent new product gracing shelves. The number has since jumped to 30 percent, nearing pre-pandemic levels. Mid-range athleticwear introductions were very low through the first half of the year, hovering around 20 percent, but they recovered in Q3, maintaining an average above 2019 levels since. While the introduction of men’s activewear stalled during the early quarters of 2020, toward the end of the year, new men’s products proliferated across the performance apparel space.