Pent-up demand and comfortable styles are fueling a rebound in U.S. clothing sales as Covid lockdowns lift; ‘2-mile fashion’

By?Wall Street Journal – Suzanne Kapner, Updated May 2, 2021 6:20 am ET

It’s time to ditch the sweatpants.

People are dressing up again—sort of—as they venture out to social events and prepare to return to the office. Pent-up demand, combined with stimulus checks, rising vaccine rates,?new styles?and the weight that many people gained or lost during the pandemic, is expected to drive a surge in clothing sales not seen in years, according to industry executives, shoppers and analysts.

In the past few weeks, pants with buttons and zippers have begun outselling those with drawstrings or elastic waistbands at L.L. Bean Inc. At Saks Fifth Avenue, sales of dresses, blouses and sandals are exceeding levels not seen since spring 2019. And employees at Haggar Clothing Co.’s distribution center are working overtime to replenish trousers and blazers at department stores and other retailers that sell its clothes.

“The fact that sales came back so strongly, so quickly before offices reopened speaks to the need for people to dress up as they get out there and socialize,” said?Michael Stitt, Haggar’s chief executive officer.

Foot traffic to apparel stores has rebounded almost to pre-pandemic levels. Visits were down 3.4% in the week beginning April 5, compared with the same week in 2019. That’s an improvement from earlier this year when store visits were down more than 20% from year-ago levels, according to analytics company Placer.ai.

Shoppers are making more weekend trips and visiting more stores when they go out, which “signifies a return to normal behavior,” said Ethan Chernofsky, Placer.ai’s vice president of marketing.

“We’re starting to see longer dwell times in our stores,” said Stephen Smith, L.L. Bean’s CEO, noting that sales over the past few weeks at the company’s 55 bricks-and-mortar stores are up by about 5% compared with 2019.

Other chains, including?American Eagle Outfitters?Inc.?and The Buckle Inc., have also reported?a return to pre-pandemic sales levels, and more retailers are expected to follow as they report earnings in coming weeks, according to UBS Group AG analyst Jay Sole.

On Thursday, Moody’s Investors Service revised its outlook for the U.S. retail and apparel sector to positive from stable, with expectations that apparel chains, department stores and off-price retailers like?T.J. Maxx?will see the biggest recovery in operating profit over the next 12 to 18 months. The recovery could be short lived, though, if spending shifts back to travel and other experiences as more of the economy reopens, said Moody’s senior credit officer Mickey Chadha.

Don’t expect to see everyone wearing suits and pumps again. Clothing styles were already turning more casual before the pandemic, and the past year, spent in loungewear and slippers,?supercharged the trend. Many people don’t want to go back to a constricted way of dressing, yet they still want to look presentable when they leave the house.

“People are figuring out ways to take their casual clothes out of the house,” said Nata Dvir, Macy’s?Inc.?chief merchandising officer, noting that “indoor/outdoor” is a top search term for slippers on Macy’s website. “People want to be comfortable, but they also want something new and fresh in their wardrobe,” she said.

On weekly conference calls during the pandemic, employees at Randa Apparel & Accessories talked about how they had gotten into the habit of wearing sweatpants and slippers to the grocery store or?Starbucks.?That led the company, which owns Haggar and other clothing brands, to conduct wider research and survey 3,500 consumers about their dressing habits.

It found that when people stay within 2 miles of their home, they tend to wear sweatpants and carry just a few credit cards. If they travel farther than 2 miles, they put on pants and grab a wallet. The radius varies depending on whether people are in the suburbs or cities, but the habits stay the same.

“We embraced the idea of 2-mile fashion,” said Brad Seabaugh, a Randa senior vice president, meaning that people wear different things whether they are close to home or farther away.

That led Randa to bet big on several types of products, including slippers with soles that can be worn outdoors, large wallets and cargo pants. Randa executives figured that with men no longer carrying messenger bags or backpacks, they would shove everything in their wallets or pockets. A cargo pant with seven pockets is currently one of Haggar’s bestsellers.

Michael Sitver recently cleared his closet of dress shirts and other items he no longer wears. The Washington, D.C., resident now spends most of his time in jeans and dressier T-shirts that he can wear while working or out to dinner. “I don’t foresee any business circumstance that would require me to wear a suit,” said the 24-year-old founder of an online subscription service that caters to history buffs.

Shoppers are snapping up?Levi Strauss?& Co.’s “mom” jeans, which are?roomier through the hips and thigh. “The looser fits are our fastest-growing styles,” said Jennifer Sey, president of the Levi’s brand.

At?Revolve Group?Inc.,?shoppers are gravitating toward tops that are cropped or cinched at the waist, said Lauren Yerkes, the online retailer’s chief merchandising officer.?

Tracy Margolies, Saks’ chief merchant, said clunkier shoes like sport sandals are selling well for spring. She expects clogs and chunky loafers that pair well with wide-leg jeans to be popular this fall.

Michelle Diamond, who runs a résumé-writing and consulting company, recently went to Neiman Marcus near her Beverly Hills, Calif., home, the first time she had shopped for clothes in a physical store in over a year. She bought a pair of white jean shorts to wear to the beach and eyed an orange silk gown that she plans to purchase when herd immunity is reached. Shoes are also on her list.

“I am starting to buy real clothes again,” the 46-year-old said, “and it makes me feel alive.”