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Just 12% of Consumers Shopped for Apparel In Stores During COVID-19 Peak

It’s no secret that apparel sales throughout the COVID-19 pandemic took major hits amid mass store closures—for example, an NPD study last month revealed that U.S. apparel sales were down 35 percent year over year in the last week of April. But the gap between apparel shopping versus other sectors was significant, even accounting for essential stores that remained open throughout the month. Only 12 percent of consumers said they shopped in-store for apparel during the peak of the pandemic, according to a study from Sensormatic Solutions.

As many as 92 percent of consumers shopped for groceries in stores, while 47 percent went to the pharmacy and 30 percent shopped for health and beauty products. Another 24 percent of respondents said they shopped in-store for home improvement and gardening-related items.

The survey found that 59 percent of shoppers are moderately or very concerned about shopping in-store. As expected, extra precautions are being taken by most consumers heading to the store. Sixty-one percent said they are trying to shop during less busy hours and 49 percent of respondents are using self-checkout as a precaution when shopping in-store.

“Apparel will rise again but it has been one of the hardest hit segments and it’s going to be a prolonged recovery,” said Kim Melvin, senior director, global retail marketing at Sensormatic Solutions. “There’s definitely concerns about the fitting room and there’s definitely concerns about returns. There’s even retailers that are quarantining these items and not putting them back on the sales floor.”

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To assuage shopper concerns, many retailers are improving social distancing efforts and offering contactless omnichannel fulfillment options. As many as 32 percent of shoppers said controlling the number of people in stores to promote social distancing was most important in making them feel more comfortable about returning to stores, ranking ahead of the 25 percent saying they were enticed by more fulfillment options such as buy online, pickup in-store (BOPIS) and curbside pickup.

Melvin anticipates the adoption of these omnichannel fulfillment options to continue to rise even as stores reopen.

“This is their trial period,” Melvin told Sourcing Journal. “It works, as long as you have a good experience. It’s been interesting because different types of retailers have implemented different types of curbside. Sometimes you pull up and call a phone number and sometimes you go to a kiosk. I think it will grow as long as the experiences are optimal and the shopper feels good about it. If the shopper doesn’t have to get out of their car, it’s a great opportunity.”

Unsurprisingly, the most important factor to customers when shopping in-store is cleanliness (37 percent), with product availability (34 percent) coming right behind.

Despite the need to have the right stock available, retailers still experience challenges with inventory visibility, with 17 percent of shoppers saying they arrived to find that an item was unavailable and substituted with something else when using curbside pickup.

“Because of cycle counting, which only happens twice a year in many cases, as well as inventory shrink and admin error, your inventory becomes off balance very quickly,” Melvin said. “Sometimes what you think you have, and what it shows in your system of records in the stores, is actually not there, whether products were stolen, they weren’t counted correctly or there was a returns issue.”

Melvin said more retailers need to invest in RFID solutions to ensure they get an accurate read over where specific items are within a supply chain. The technology, she added, will be more important in the post-COVID era due to the continued shift to online purchasing.

“One of the most disappointing things you can do is get someone to come to your store and not have that product, and it’s even worse when you order online and you go to pick it up and it’s not there,” Melvin said. “If you’re in the store and you don’t see it, you might think, ‘It’s okay, I’ll just substitute it.’ But if that decision is made for you and you get there and they substitute? No, that’s not acceptable. It’s one of the quickest ways to lose a customer.”

In May, Sensormatic Solutions released a Real-Time Occupancy solution designed to assist retailers with understanding shopper density within a store to comply with social distancing guidelines or ordinances, and to meet maximum limits. The platform can help optimize cleaning schedules for common facilities or high-touch areas such as self-checkouts and calculates staffing needs for fulfillment of BOPIS or curbside pickup orders.

Additional features include thermal imaging to gauge whether people entering a location have an elevated body temperature. Cameras detect elevated temperatures above defined thresholds and send a notification to store or warehouse managers, and a social distancing scoreboard, which layers statistics related to new reported cases  and provides daily community grades (measured A to F) to help retailers evaluate reopening individual store locations across their enterprise.