It will be interesting to see if apparel shopping accelerates based on personal circumstances amid the apparel-challenged year we are hoping to put behind us, writes Lauren Freedman, senior consumer insights analyst at Digital Commerce 360.

The pandemic certainly saw many of us change course in terms of our apparel/accessory consumption. Everyday work attire for many of us now meant sweats or “athleisure” as it is currently classified. We were able to shop our closets rather than the stores online or off. But now that I’m vaccinated, I once again have a new attitude. I’m out shopping again, I’m thinking about styling up and being on-trend beyond the world in my home office. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

According to Digital Commerce 360, 2020 online apparel sales totaled $240.71 billion, which was down 20.3% from $301.84 billion in 2019. There is room for a comeback and two questions remain: how much and how quickly?

Digital Commerce 360, in conjunction with Bizrate Insights, surveyed 1,049 online shoppers in early May. It is encouraging to see that these shoppers were inspired to make apparel/accessory purchases due to replenishment (41%), seasonality (36%), and a desire to freshen up their wardrobes (35%). Ironically, these are the same reasons a typical shopper in a non-COVID-19 world might choose to make a purchase. For now, it will be interesting to watch and see if this accelerates based on personal circumstances and the apparel-challenged year we are hoping to put behind us. Of course, I would be remiss not to mention promotions on desired products, which were a factor for 27% of those surveyed. I would have expected that wanting a pick-me-up would have fared better than the 23% who identified that as a factor. 22% were like me and looking to update their wardrobes.

Just one in four online shoppers project an increase in spending in post-COVID-19 while the majority anticipate they will spend about the same in these categories. Ultimately, I must believe that once shoppers are out and about, they may have different sentiments that result in higher spending. If not, this trend will have important implications for luxury and even work apparel, especially if work from home becomes a permanent trend.

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Let’s start with the fact that 76% of online shoppers acknowledge that COVID-19 has made an impact on their online behavior. For one in five online shoppers, COVID-19’s impact on buying reinforces some behavioral shifts that were anticipated. Shoppers have had time to think about the challenge of returns and enjoy the free return shipping option that they took advantage of prior to COVID-19. Offline, they have also come to appreciate that shopping local matters as 21% cited the importance of small businesses in maintaining community vibrancy. Many believe that online shopping will be the long-term beneficiary of COVID-19 as shoppers realized its efficiency during these challenging times. Yet, our research reveals that only 19% will maintain that shift to online in this category post-pandemic. Of course, personal circumstances will always play an important role in shopping. It will take a year post-COVID-19 to know what the lasting trends will be as physical stores struggle to maintain the strong presence they need to reengage shoppers.

Online shoppers buy from a variety of retailers with Amazon achieving greater dominance in this category. To see them rising to the top in this of all categories is challenging for me. One cannot deny that there is a residual effect that comes from so much shopping on their site where shoppers must be saying, “Well I’m on Amazon so I can always buy it there.” Department stores at 45% was reassuring as their demise has long been under discussion. Specialty stores still have an important role to play at 28% and direct-to-consumer brands have a similar approach to these once formidable players.

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We can see from survey results that shoppers are testing new apparel services with 13% purchasing apparel based on their sustainability or other pro-environmental stance. Digging further into the numbers, one sees mixed messages regarding their interest in sustainability. Regardless of this, it’s positive to see this important issue on the minds of apparel shoppers. 39% care about these issues but do not seek out retailers, and an additional 32% of shoppers do not factor in sustainable practices. It is a dollars and cents issue also and there are 20% who would not pay more while 10% are accepting of the costs involved. Sustainability as a viable concept will truly have arrived when shoppers seek out brands focused on sustainability and are willing to pay the price to protect our planet.

Interest is also seen in shopping international, consignment shopping and creating custom products that speak to the individual with expectations for greater adoption in the coming years.

Retailers are embracing influencers and bloggers to tell their story in today’s terms. Shoppers have made social media a part of their shopping journey as 30% indicate they use social media to find out about new brands and products, 29% click on retailer’s social ads and 28% get inspired through the tactics being utilized. It is important to also emphasize that only 24% suggest they do not follow, use or are influenced by social media. Lastly, when shoppers are truly involved, 20% share that they follow specific apparel brands and retailers making an important connection to those sellers of interest.

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Sizing oneself has always been one of the greatest apparel challenges. As such, retailers have employed everything from traditional tactics to technology-based tools to help shoppers make better choices. Traditional tactics that are employed include indicators that describe fit for 48% of online shoppers while 46% take advantage of a chart with measurements that equate to different sizes. Reviews also guide shoppers with 38% leveraging customer reviews with fit-related information. Profiling quizzes may have a more limited presence but are certainly impactful for subscription-based services and innovative retailers looking to engage their shoppers where algorithms may drive future purchasing.

The growth trajectory of apparel is not going to be simple or easy to predict. Supply chain issues, work-from-home status and the return of a revitalized physical store will all be factors in apparel’s performance. It reminds me a bit of when dress casual challenged the suiting category with the impact being felt in other categories as well. Bloggers and influencers likely will maintai their momentum and marketing impact. Models and services from consignment to subscription services will be refined for further growth. Younger shoppers will lead the charge and set the stage for an apparel industry likely to be flux for years to come. The only constant for me is I will still be buying.

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