It’s the defining attire of the pandemic: Stretchy pants, baggy sweaters and slippers.
Yet as vaccine campaigns gain momentum and lockdowns lift, the return to in-person gatherings is expected to spur demand for a wardrobe refresh, experts say.
More than half of Canadian consumers plan to purchase new clothing once pandemic restrictions are relaxed, a new report by market research firm The NPD Group said.
Among consumers aged 18 to 34, that number jumps to two-thirds planning to buy new apparel, the report said.
“There is built-up consumer demand for newness,” Tamara Szames, Canadian retail industry adviser with The NPD Group, said in an interview.
“People are ready to start socializing again and even if it’s just a backyard barbecue with friends and family they’ll want to look good and maybe wear new clothes.”
The desire to dress up for social get-togethers is expected to be a boon for Canada’s hard-hit apparel industry.
Clothing store sales have plummeted during the pandemic, dropping 86.7 per cent in April 2020 and remaining below pre-pandemic levels since.
Mall staples like fashion retailer Le Chateau Inc., Reitmans (Canada) Ltd. and Groupe Dynamite are among the apparel stores that have filed for creditor protection.
Aritzia temporarily closed all its stores at the outset of the pandemic, sending sales and revenues plummeting.
But the Vancouver-based clothing retailer has managed to recoup most of its revenue through e-commerce sales and is banking on a post-COVID recovery.
“While the uncertainty of the pandemic remains with the ongoing closure of half of our Canadian boutiques and economic conditions varying widely, we're well-positioned,” Brian Hill, founder, CEO and chairman, said during a recent conference call to discuss the retailer's results.
“Regardless of whether the pandemic carries on or whether we come out of it sooner than expected, we’re going to be ready for it at Aritzia.”
The women's fashion brand is seeing sales growth in the United States and hopes to see the same trend in Canada as the vaccine rollout gains speed.
“We’re seeing our dresses and our going-out clothing already picking up a lot more in the U.S.,” Hill said. “Our e-commerce business continues to surge, and with our U.S. business flourishing, we're optimistic that as the vaccine rollout accelerates, we'll see similar business recovery in Canada in due course.”
The faster recovery south of the border offers retailers in Canada a glimpse of what they can expect as stay-at-home measures ease here.
The return to social events and travel has spurred apparel sales, with categories like swimwear seeing the fastest recovery, Szames with The NPD Group said.
Even in Canada when lockdowns eased briefly in March, clothing sales picked up, she said.
Women’s jeans, for example, were up one per cent compared to March 2019, Szames said.
“That’s an indication that once lockdowns lift, we can get back to those normal levels,” she said.
While the return of zippers and buttons and belts might feel jarring after more than a year of yoga pants and joggers, Szames said the post-COVID clothing trend will be a hybrid of comfort and fashion.
“Overall comfort is still the driving factor,” she said. “But for 18- to 34-year-olds, fashion was just as important as comfort.”
In the jeans category, for example, expect softer denims and baggier, wide-cut legs, as opposed to skinny jeans, she said.
“We’re not going to see all of a sudden a flip to extreme fashion,” Szames said. “It’s going to be grounded in comfort.”
As the economy reopens, older generations are likely to be the first to return in-store, while shoppers under age 40 will continue to predominantly shop online, she said.
“It will continue to be e-commerce first with the brick-and-mortar store experience complementing online,” Szames said.
Her advice to bolster in-store sales is to make returns easy, ensure a speedy checkout and keep store cleanliness a top priority.
“Just because the economy starts to reopen doesn’t mean there still won’t be some fear among consumers,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2021.
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Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press