Get ready for the bounce.
New denim silhouettes and washes are reinvigorating what many retailers described as a decelerating denim trend last year.
According to denim vendors and retailers, as the economy improves, the female customer is coming back — and not just to replace the jeans she already has, but to add new, fashion-forward looks to her closet.
“Business overall is doing much better than our retailers have planned, be it at department stores or specialty stores,” said Marc Crossman, president and chief executive of Joe’s Jeans Inc. “It really comes down to a magnitude shift…now there are some major trend changes that I think will have an impact on that mix shift.”
New Sixties- and Seventies-inspired silhouettes, white jeans and special washes are pulling the category back to relevancy, which is helping to “reignite” the premium denim market, said Crossman, who noted that like his competitors, his company is adding newness with wide legs and flares available in “all flavors, be it fabric or washes.”
One “standout” offered by Crossman is skinny jeans with a micro-flare that retails for $172 to $178 and combines two hot trends.
Finding new life at the high end of the denim market is critical. Last year, a lack of fashion inspiration contributed to a 6.4 percent decline in sales of women’s jeans at $50 and above, to $1.36 billion from $1.45 billion in 2009. Along with growth in lower-price jeggings and a highly promotional pricing climate, especially in the fourth quarter, it pulled average price points for women’s jeans down to $22.76 from $23.34 the prior year, according to The NPD Group, the Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm.
The more recent trends are more encouraging. For the 12 months through February, dollar volume was up 3.2 percent to $8.75 billion and units were up 5.2 percent to 383.8 million, NPD said. That still left average prices continuing their decline, at $22.79 for the most recent 12 months as compared with $23.23 in the prior-year period.
NPD figures leave little doubt that specialty stores are increasing their already commanding market share in an environment where customers want more than what they bought last year. With their women’s jeans sales up 14.8 percent to $3.25 billion in the most recent 12 months, specialty stores commanded 42.6 percent of the women’s denim market, up from 38.3 percent. Department stores, national chains, mass merchants, off-price retailers and even direct marketers and e-tail pure plays all experienced declines.
Specialty retailers aren’t passing up the opportunity to cash in on a denim category reinvigorated with fashion.
“We’re the denim destination,” said American Eagle Outfitters Inc. vice chairman and executive creative director Roger Markfield. “Obviously, the bohemian trend is there. We’re ahead of it. We’re in it. We’re going after it appropriately where we want to make the investments.…As good as we’ve been in the denim category, we have not yet maximized our potential.”
According to Jennifer Black, president of Jennifer Black & Associates, Eagle’s three different styles of flares will likely put the company “in a position to chase categories that are performing well.”
While skinny jeans are not yet ready to leave the spotlight, “flared and wide-leg denim with both midrises and higher rises” are emerging trends that should wake consumers from their winter hibernation, she added.
“The big story here is the return of denim,” said Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief industry analyst, who explained that with an “influx” of new styles in 2011, shoppers may take a break from the sleek jeggings silhouette and opt instead for fresher looks. Last year, jeggings sales more than tripled to $271.3 million, accounting for all the growth as women’s jeans sales grew 2.6 percent to $8.64 billion, but also contributing to the decline in average price points that’s continued into 2011.
For smaller specialty boutiques, “competing on price can be difficult,” said Blues Jean Bar owner Lady Fuller, who runs an eight-door boutique chain that carries more than 40 denim brands, ranging from larger, well-known labels like James Jeans and J Brand to smaller, niche ones like DL 1961 and Fidelity.
According to Fuller, independent collections not only give her chain a sense of “relevance,” but they also give the store the ability to carry lower-priced denim, a tactic that counterbalances steep promotions on mainstream denim brands carried at department stores.
In addition, it allows her to find products at different price points that address emerging market trends like white denim, a look that has sold so well that her company “wasn’t prepared for the demand.”
Other ways Blues Jean Bar responds to the “still cautious” consumer is by housing brands in the $100 to $200 range, Fuller said, while noting her best-selling brands aren’t usually at the low end of the price spectrum.
“People want fit and they are willing to pay for that,” she said.
Fit and price are also a major focus at denim giant Levi Strauss & Co., which launched a fit system last year called Curve ID, based on women’s shapes, not sizes.
The collection’s newest fit, for the curviest client, called Supreme Curve, is in the process of being rolled out to all of Levi’s U.S. wholesale customers.
Retailing from $59.50 to $98, Curve ID fits include “slight,” for women with straight figures, “demi” jeans for a more proportioned body, “bold” for women with curves who experience waist gapping in the back and “supreme,” a higher rise jean for women with the curviest shape.
Levi’s fit customization is part of a larger trend of consumer attentiveness. It may seem like a no-brainer, but many brands coming out of the recession have put a renewed emphasis on responding to the consumer’s every whim.
As a result, Fuller and others have developed aggressive customer service initiatives to keep the recession-wary consumer engaged and ready to shop.
“You have to treat the customer with kid gloves,” she said, explaining that everyone who buys something at her store receives a handwritten note of thanks, accompanied by a discount on their next purchase.
The store also hosts private shopping events, which account for 20 percent of the company’s overall business.
“It’s all viral word of mouth,” she said. “Buzz will create more shopping, and that is priceless.”