NEW YORK — Apparel’s back in the picture.

After being edged out of people’s spending priorities for the past couple of years, apparel appears poised for a comeback. To wit: 14 percent of those polled in a new NPD Consumer Spending Survey said they were planning to spend “more than usual” on clothes during May, June and July. Leading the fashion charge will be 18- to 34-year olds with no children, at 24 percent, based on NPD’s survey of consumers ages 13 and up, fielded between April 29 and May 6.

Those responses represent increases of 27 percent and 26 percent, respectively, compared with the 11 percent of consumers overall and the 19 percent of those 18 to 34 who cited plans to spend “more than usual” on clothing between April and June, when polled in NPD’s previous spending survey, concluded March 11.

A sharper focus on the basic elements of daily life — and pent-up demand — among the Millennials and Gen-Xers, coupled with a generally more confident consumer and plentiful promotions, are driving the upswing in anticipated apparel purchasing, said Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPDFashionworld, in disclosing the results to WWD.

“Apparel was one of four areas in which 18- to 34-year olds expected to spend more than usual,” Cohen related. “The others were their car, food and personal care, including cosmetics and fragrances. Clearly, young adults are making the necessities of life their purchasing priorities. This group has gone a long time without a major buying spree for apparel.”

These trends are based on a demographically balanced group of 2,823 people who were asked, in NPD’s online poll, whether they plan to spend “significantly more, more, the same, less or significantly less” on 18 products and services, but were not asked to specify amounts.

While the outlook was brighter for apparel, it’s not so great for jewelry, one of the categories in which consumers expected to make their sharpest spending cuts. Other cutbacks included entertainment events, electronics, toys, furniture, appliances and cookware.

When income was the gauge, consumers in households with annual income between $45,000 and $75,000 were most likely to reveal plans for robust apparel spending, as 15 percent of them said they’d spend “more than usual” on their wardrobe. That was 50 percent more than the 10 percent in that income bracket who noted the same plans for clothing purchases to be transacted in April through June.In contrast, Cohen projected, apparel spending by the darlings of fashion marketers — 13- to 17-year olds — will continue a slide that started in April. “They want to spend money [on clothing] but there’s no money to spend,” he stated. “There are more people than ever competing for the low-wage, entry-level jobs typically held by teens; a lot of part-time jobs have been eliminated, and teens’ parents don’t have the same kind of money to give to them.”

Despite declining spending by teens, NPDFashionworld foresees full-year apparel sales rising roughly 1 percentover the $163 billion realized last year, or falling flat with it — stanching dollar-volume declines of 2 percent and 5 percent, respectively, in 2002 and 2001. For that to happen, however, the fashion business still has some catching up to do.

For the 12 months ended March 31, Cohen said, the country’s clothing sales came to $160.9 billion, off 0.6 percent from sales of $161.9 billion a year earlier. And in the first quarter ended March 31, the downturn was steeper, as apparel sales slid 5.1 percent to $34.1 billion from $35.9 billion in the prior-year period.

A big part of the challenge is the ongoing promotional frenzy, exacerbated by the persistent plague of price deflation. The average price of apparel tumbled 5 percent in the first quarter, for instance. “The consumer is being influenced by the fun fashion and bright colors in stores for the first time in a year,” Cohen said. “But there’s so much similar merchandise out there, at a wide variety of prices, it sets the scene for promotional warfare.”

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