As government authorities across the country contemplate reopening local businesses to invigorate a flagging economy, the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread.
But being confined to their homes hasn’t completely stripped shoppers of their appetites for fresh, new duds—though their tastes may be changing with the stay-at-home culture that has come to define spring 2020 style.
According to Yossi Nasser, CEO of intimates manufacturer Gelmart, operations are humming as his company’s brands attempt to keep up with consumer demand for comfy, cozy bras and underwear.
With clients including big-box retailers and department stores like Target, Walmart, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney, as well as digitally native darling, Lively, Nasser said shoppers have quickly transitioned from “business casual to business comfort.”
“The work-from-home environment has changed the styling and fashion tastes and habits we’ve been seeing, and has accelerated many others,” he said.
Appetites for lounge wear, wire-free bras and soft, supple underwear and socks are all on the rise. And, because of the renewed focus on self-care during this time of heightened anxiety, shoppers are also looking to refresh their active and yoga apparel.
The shift in consumer interest has been a welcome opportunity, as it has given Gelmart’s brand clients an in with shoppers who might otherwise be feeling guarded about their spending. For many who have been relegated to home offices indefinitely, appropriate wardrobe staples seem a reasonable expense—though Nasser admitted shoppers are espousing a newfound price sensitivity.
The pivot to new product lines has been a challenge, Nasser said, in the wake of supply chain disruptions that have rocked the industry. With factories in the Philippines, China, India, Vietnam and Bangladesh, Gelmart has cast a wide net of suppliers and created many manufacturing hubs, but experienced hiccups in shifting to new designs.
Those issues stem mostly from the persistent lockdowns of countries outside of China, and difficulties in transporting the needed materials and components from the country’s downstream suppliers to factories in places like India and the Philippines.
“Our supply chain is set up to be as flexible as possible,” Nasser said. “We own our manufacturing, and the response time and flexibility has to be there.”
In the face of these roadblocks, Nasser pointed to direct-to-consumer bra brand Lively as a success story. “With certain trends upticking, like lounge wear and bralettes, we’ve been able to re-juggle our factory lines in the Philippines to respond to the demand changes we’ve seen since the start of this pandemic,” he said.
One of the company’s biggest takeaways from the coronavirus crisis has been the importance of monitoring trends in supply chains as well as consumer appetites, said Gelmart chief marketing officer Caroline Limpert.
“There’s an importance to flexibility, but also a need for diversification,” she said. “We’ve been able to flex where we produce and where we’re finding materials based on the already embedded diversity of our network.”
Gelmart’s robust roster of brands—ranging from DTCs to household-name retailers—have all seen increased interest from a particular demographic: Gen Z.
“She’s home, she’s on social and she’s seeing product,” Limpert said, describing the profile of a young Gelmart target. “She’s no longer buying her expensive coffee or her Sweetgreen salads—instead, she’s home shopping.”
Gen Z and young millennial shoppers are gravitating to juniors styles, like bralettes and other reasonably priced items, in high volumes. While many department stores are closed, Walmart and Target have become the still-standing beacons of retail during the crisis, and are reaping the benefits.
The big question is what the landscape looks like after the pandemic, Nasser said. “Once [consumers] get exposed to that lower price point value proposition in the mass retail arena, are they going to trade back up when the other stores open?”
While Nasser believes the trend toward comfort will endure even as the world opens its doors again, he also envisions a “pent-up demand for the old normal,” and perhaps a return to sophisticated styles and higher price points, depending on how the economic reboot shakes out.
He pointed to China’s luxury goods market as an example of the persistence of consumer appetites for specialized goods. In early April, one of the country’s newly reopened Hermes stores did well over $2 million in sales in just one day.
DTC brands and retailers with an advanced online presence stand to see long-term gains, according to Nasser. “We’ve seen direct-to-consumer businesses—if they can provide product that hasn’t become an obsolete need at this moment—outperform,” he said.
So far, Gelmart’s brand partners have not had to rely on promotions and markdowns, as many of their contemporaries selling seasonal styles have done to recoup sales. Intimates are by nature seasonless, he noted, which inoculates the category to some of the impact that other brands are facing.
In fact, Gelmart has seen more interest in its products—especially the comfortable, casual selections—than ever before.
“We’ve been pushing comfort-driven styling for the past two to three years, and we’ve seen retailers and brands dip their toes in cautiously,” he said. “But we’ve seen a massive change in appetite for those products over the last month or so,” he added. “If there’s a comfort-driven opportunity buy, they’ll jump for it.”