In an otherwise bleak picture after a year of coronavirus lockdowns, a bright spot has emerged for the apparel industry: Americans are finally shedding their loungewear for dressier clothes.
The uptick started around Valentine’s Day as consumers began putting jeans, dresses and casual button-down shirts into their shopping carts for the first time in months, industry executives said.
“We’ve seen a complete change, as if someone flipped a light switch,” Chris Riccobono, founder of casual men’s shirt seller Untuckit, told The Post.
The retail chain saw foot traffic rise 23 percent from late February through early March at the 86 stores it operates nationwide, he said. The data suggest that interest in clothes typically picked out for a night on the town or a visit to the museum is rising — and happening “earlier than we had expected,” according to Riccobono.
Retailers like Urban Outfitters, American Eagle and Anthropologie are also reporting signs that more Americans are suddenly eager to ditch the jeggings for real clothes. The trend has retailers cheering, even as experts warn that a recovery will likely be long and hard.
Boho-inspired retailer Anthropologie recently said seven of its top 10 sellers online in the last week of February were dresses — a massive change from much of 2020, when all anyone wanted was a roomy, stretchy outfit for puttering around the house.
“Over the past year, we were lucky if [the top sellers] ]included one or two dresses,” Richard Hayne, chief executive of Urban Outfitters, which owns Anthropologie, said on an earnings call.
Jeans are selling at American Eagle Outfitters again, the mall-based chain said on a March 3 call. Chief Executive Jay Schottenstein predicted that demand will continue to grow as more shoppers get vaccinated.
“I believe that the next few months, things will start getting back to normal,” Schottenstein said. “And then I think going into next year, we’re going to see a boom in this country. It’s going to be like the Roaring ’20s. You’re going to see people getting out.”
Experts warn that the apparel industry — one of the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic, down about 23 percent in 2020 — could take longer than the rest of the country to rebound. McKinsey & Co. forecasted in December that apparel sales would be down 7 to 12 percent in 2021 compared with 2019, with a “modest recovery” possible by the first quarter of 2023.
Craig Johnson, president of retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners, also sees sales declining this year, by about 9 percent, even as people get vaccinated and start returning to work. If the current pace of demand keeps up, the industry will report a positive holiday season at best, he predicts.
One reason for skepticism is that apparel spending was in decline pre-pandemic, with more people dressing casually for work and even nights out, while shifting more disposable income to travel, restaurants, concerts and movies.
When the pandemic lifts, apparel sellers will face the same competition — potentially even more so than before. And some people may never go back to work full-time in an office again as employers seek to cut real-estate costs.
“The future of fashion has never been more uncertain,” said Richard Kestenbaum of Triangle Capital, an investment bank focusing on retail. One reason, he said, is “because we don’t know how people’s lifestyles will change when the pandemic ends in full.”
Still, experts say it’s a positive sign that loungewear seems to have peaked in February. Some purchases of dressier clothing are coming from necessity, as some consumers no longer fit into their pre-pandemic clothes after a year of either sitting around too much or working out more.
Thomasina Watson, 26, of Houston, was gearing up to buy an entirely new wardrobe after losing 50 pounds, she told The Post.
“I used the pandemic to work on my health and now I’m excited to show off the new me,” said Watson, who signed up for Weight Watchers and started going to a gym after putting on weight last spring.
“On the top of my shopping list is going-out cute clothes,” Watson said. “I’m single and excited to start seeing my friends again.”
Regardless of the cause, the uptick has retailers rushing out to capitalize on the change in consumers’ tastes. Even companies that normally focus on leisurewear are pouncing on the opportunity, with Gap-owned Athleta promoting its ankle-length Presidio dress for $98 while discounting some sweatshirts.
“They are putting more of their casual apparel front and center instead of their stretchy clothes,” said retail consultant Kathy Gersch.