How coronavirus could alter the way we shop for clothes from now on

Store closures due to coronavrirus have left many clothing retailers with declining sales. But could there be other long-term effects?
/ Source: TODAY

Normally, this would be the time of year when many people would be refreshing their wardrobes for warmer weather and looking for the latest spring and summer styles. But these are far from normal times, and our shopping priorities have drastically shifted from buying cute spring dresses to stockpiling groceries.

Over the last few weeks, retailers have quickly pivoted to online-only operations as the spread of coronavirus has forced brick-and-mortar stores to temporarily close. Many brands are struggling to adjust to the "new normal."

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As the outbreak continues to evolve, many retailers and shoppers are wondering: Will stores be able to survive the pandemic? Will more consumers turn to online shopping? And will coronavirus end up changing the way we all shop for clothes? TODAY Style spoke to industry experts to get some insight on how coronavirus might alter the shopping landscape.

Our shopping habits are changing

When concerns about coronavirus started to escalate, panic buying swiftly settled in and sales of toilet paper and hand sanitizer flew through the roof. Understandably, shopping for a new spring wardrobe quickly took a back seat.

“Sales for apparel are down over the past six weeks, averaging close to 60% below the year before. Apparel is one of the leading discretionary purchases and, along with beauty, footwear and accessories, the declines have been historic," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor of retail for market research group NPD.

Essential health, self-care and grocery items have been top of mind for consumers as they begin to spend more time at home. Items like small appliances, games, entertainment and home office purchases have also been rising in popularity in recent weeks.

"Now add in home improvement and decorating projects, as well as crafts for many, and you can see how low fashion is on the spending totem pole,” Cohen said.

According to Census Bureau data released in mid-April, retail sales (which include online sales, in-store purchases and bar/restaurant sales) fell 8.7% in March. Clothing sales, in particular, dropped by 50.5%. The New York Times reports that the largest one-month drop in retail sales before now was during the financial crisis in Fall 2008.

Many clothing companies are experiencing declining sales due to coronavirus.NurPhoto via Getty Images

Why are clothing sales down so much?

In a culture known for its love of fast fashion, it might be surprising to hear that consumers have suddenly pressed pause on their love of new clothes. But coronavirus has affected every aspect of our lives, including our shopping patterns.

"There is a certain psychology around being stuck at home that makes us less excited about getting dressed. Many people buy clothes for particular special occasions — vacations, dates, weddings. With many of these events canceled or postponed, the desire to buy a new spring sundress just isn't there," Lucy Collins, assistant professor of philosophy at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said.

Add layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts into the equation, and a revamped wardrobe is nowhere near as important as it was before for most shoppers.

"Many people are now out of work and concerned about paying rent and buying food. Purchasing extraneous items, like seasonal and trendy clothing, just isn't going to be at the top of the list of where to spend one's money," Collins said.

It's not all bad news, though. Certain clothing categories are actually seeing an increase in demand, despite an overall decline in retail sales.

"With most of the country under stay-at-home orders, consumers are searching for casualwear items like sweatpants (+235% YoY), cashmere joggers (+340% YoY) and cashmere hoodies (+340% YoY). ShopStyle is also seeing more interest in slip-on shoe styles as shoppers are looking for comfortable no-touch options, where heels and boots have typically dominated," said Alison Stiefel, general manager of digital shopping platform ShopStyle.

According to NPD's weekly retail tracking service, online sales for workout apparel increased in April after sales of home fitness equipment rose in March.

"Apparel basics, tops and bottoms have been growing from week to week into the first part of April," Cohen said adding that the most significant gains are coming from categories like sleepwear, T-shirts, shorts and socks.

How will coronavirus affect retailers?

With consumers shifting their spending habits so rapidly, many clothing retailers that were already struggling are now scrambling to figure out what the future holds for them.

Over the past few years, major companies like Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Sears and Charming Charlie have filed for bankruptcy. Others like Victoria's Secret, Express and Abercrombie & Fitch have announced a significant number of store closings to combat declining sales.

With coronavirus forcing non-essential clothing stores to temporarily close for weeks on end, many already vulnerable brands are preparing to take drastic measures to protect themselves. Department store Neiman Marcus and J.Crew are reportedly preparing to file for bankruptcy in the coming days, according to reports from CNBC.

In March, Macy's issued a statement announcing that the coronavirus outbreak has taken a "heavy toll" on the company. With stores temporarily closed, online shopping is now the store's main source of revenue, but it hasn't been enough to help sustain regular business operations. "While the digital business remains open, we have lost the majority of our sales due to the store closures," the statement reads.

It's a common theme for many clothing companies who have had to abruptly close stores and switch to primarily digital operations.

"The gap between online and stores is too great for online to handle. We see in the sales that the online growth has only recovered one third of what was lost from stores. Stores and brands alike were not equipped to move all that volume to online-only channels. The consumer wasn’t equipped either," Cohen said. "Keep in mind, we have not seen a shuttering of stores like this in our lifetime. Even the recession in 2008 had stores open and doing less business, but not no business.”

Shopping habits have been shifting for a while. Getty Images

Coronavirus isn't entirely to blame for the drop in sales

The coronavirus outbreak has put a major strain on many clothing companies, but our relationship with clothes shopping has actually been shifting for quite some time.

"There's been a concern in the industry for years over the decline in physical retail stores. With the rise of social media, millennials are seeking 'Instagrammable' moments and shopping at the mall doesn't quite fit the bill," Collins said. "This is why many physical stores had been pushing 'events' and other gimmicks to make shopping more of a social media-worthy experience."

After malls started rising in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, they quickly became a place to "see and be seen" and re-created the experience of an urban shopping district in one convenient, enclosed location. Like anything, shopping habits are cyclical and malls have lost some of their appeal in the last decade.

"The much-publicized death of the mall was partly due to the rise of online and big box stores, and partly due to lifestyle changes. Today, the preference is for open-air, mixed-use spaces that might include housing, entertainment venues, fitness classes, and public parkland as well as retail and restaurants," said Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, fashion historian and author of "Worn on This Day: The Clothes That Made History."

With an increase in online shopping and many smaller clothing brands competing for consumers' attention these days, many clothing brands have been grappling with declining sales for years.

Brick-and-mortar stores will employ new safety rules as they start to reopen.Getty Images

What will the future of shopping look like?

For the foreseeable future, many brick-and-mortar clothing stores will stay closed as states work on developing plans to safely reopen businesses. And when they do open again, the shopping experience will likely look a lot different than it did before.

Case in point? Simon Property Group, the largest mall operator in the United States, just released their plans for reopening 49 malls in 10 states that are easing their stay-at-home orders. In the days to come, shoppers will return to a vastly different shopping experience and will be required to wear masks and maintain social distancing practices in stores.

Still, many stir-crazy shoppers are eager to return to routine practices, such as clothes shopping, that remind them of their "old normal" and may even return to malls sooner rather than later.

"If anything, the pandemic has proven that there will always be a place for brick-and-mortar stores! Online shopping is great if you know exactly what you want, but there’s a lot of value in being able to browse, touch things and try them on. There’s a lot more buyer’s remorse when you shop online, and more returns," Chrisman-Campbell said.

On the other hand, some shoppers might end up deciding that online shopping is more convenient after all.

"As the situation starts to stabilize, shopping in-store will likely forever be changed with potentially different payment methods that don't involve touch screens or cash, less physical contact with people and hand-sanitizing stations in most physical locations. All of these changes might ultimately affect the in-store shopping experience and may push shoppers towards online retailers," said Sara Skirboll, RetailMeNot shopping and trends expert.

Either way, a temporary decline in retail sales might spell big discounts for consumers in the short term and permanent store closures for already struggling companies in the long term. Our shopping philosophy might also change a bit.

"If others are anything like me, being at home has given me a chance to look at my own closet and wonder: 'Why do I have all these clothes to begin with?!' Americans in particular have become fast fashion junkies, addicted to cheap disposable clothing, and it was already reaching a breaking point before this crisis. I think this is actually a welcome pause when we can re-evaulate our patterns of consumption and reimagine the ways we want to clothe our bodies," Collins said.