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There’s No Such Thing as ‘House Clothes’ in a Pandemic, Here’s How This Helps — And Hurts — Retail

Long gone are the days when “house clothes” consisted of ratty old t-shirts and mismatched socks. As the pandemic forces people indoors — either due to government restrictions or personal apprehensions — a string of recent anecdotal and scientific evidence is showing more and more consumers are rethinking their at-home wardrobes and investing accordingly.

“Is there still such a thing as house clothes in this time of COVID-19? Our wardrobes for different occasions have essentially blurred into one, and today’s consumers are purchasing outfits that are interchangeable and versatile for various needs,” said Maria Rugolo, an apparel industry analyst with the NPD Group Inc., in a report today. “Once consumers do return to pre-pandemic routines and activities, the demand will be even higher for hybrid clothing intertwining dress and comfort.”

Indeed, even as the COVID-19 vaccination rollout takes shapes and there are promising signs of a return to some version of normalcy, experts have widely agreed that the pandemic’s legacy will include some permanent shifts in consumer shopping behaviors, predicated by heightened expectations for convenience and long-term changes to in-office schedules.

And much of this isn’t altogether new: Where retail is concerned, the pandemic has overwhelmingly accelerated shifts that were already in-motion, including the rise of comfortable and athleisure fashion.

Case in point: While total apparel sales declined 19% in 2020, “comfy cozy” categories sidestepped the broader industry challenges with sweatpants growing 17%, sleepwear up 6% and sports bras improving 10%, according to NPD data.

The trend was consistent for footwear: While fashion footwear sales declined 27% for the year, slipper revenues advanced 21% and clogs sales climbed 33%. (The NPD’s fashion footwear category also includes heels, sandals, and boots.)

“Being at home has become a lifestyle in itself — for many, the center of all that we do both personally and professionally. Brands have an opportunity to capitalize on the more casual, comfort-focused features that consumers have become accustomed to wearing inside of the home and adapt for use outside of the home,” said Beth Goldstein, NPD’s fashion footwear and accessories analyst. “Fashion footwear will see improvement once consumers start venturing out again. Pent-up demand will drive a short-term boost, but the industry needs to be prepared for a long-term shift in consumer preferences and innovate accordingly.”

Another report today from market research firm Placer.ai indicated several major shoe retailers — including DSW, Foot Locker, Shoe Carnival and Famous Footwear — are “still struggling to recover in the wake of the pandemic” when it comes to store traffic, which is perhaps unsurprising given the store capacity restrictions that remain in place across much of the country.

“None of the four chains have seen a year-over-year increase in foot traffic in at least six months, and really, none even came close to matching 2019’s numbers during the last half of 2020,” the report stated.

Still, added Placer researchers, such retailers “are kicking, and are looking ahead to 2021 in hopes that they can find some solid footing.”

While Placer’s data focuses on store traffic alone, the researchers indicated that they see signs that the general increase of people working from home “incentivizes owning a good pair of shoes” — a trend that will help drive traffic to stores with the right product mix, including Foot Locker and DSW, which are already making some progress.

According to Placer, visits to Foot Locker stores were within 3.3% of 2019 levels in October before falling to 19.5% in November — when COVID-19 cases were spiking across the country — and bouncing back to down 16.5% in December. Famous Footwear and Shoe Carnival saw similar swings with visits hitting their lowest points in November following a significant narrowing of the year-over-year visit gap in October.

“They both also saw positive movement in December,” Placer added. “DSW, however, shirked this trend with the visit gap seeing only a minor increase from October to November, before visits dropped significantly in December to just 6.4%.”

Data from NPD and Placer also coincides with anecdotal evidence that’s surfaced since the pandemic took hold in the U.S. last March: People stuck at home due to the pandemic did not relinquish the need for new shoes altogether, in fact, their needs for certain kinds of footwear has exploded. Some stay-at-homers turned to presumably COVID-19-safe outdoor activities such as hiking and running — driving heightened interest in running and hiking shoes. Meanwhile, many realized that ditching footwear altogether while at home exacerbated issues such as plantar fasciitis and sought comfortable, supportive slippers with arch supports and cushion — which, in some, cases transitioned to outdoor sandals for dog-walking and other activities.

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