July 27, 2020

‘The fun of getting dressed is gone.’ As consumers adjust to the pandemic, retailers feel the strain


Yes. Your shoes miss you, too.

“I loved doing my hair and getting ready, picking out a nice pair of pants and a dressy blouse or a dress and heels,” said Ashley Krasnoff, who used to go to her Los Angeles-area office every weekday. “With that came jewelry and a watch and picking out a purse.”

Now, “I wake up about five minutes before I have to log on,” she said. “I usually throw on yoga leggings, a sports bra and a sports tank top. I think once I might have put on jeans.”

Krasnoff isn’t alone.

Sequestered at home since mid-March, many workers have adopted a new “work uniform” that better suits their new environment. The look involves fewer high-heeled shoes, handbags, suits, ties and coats — and more loungewear and athleisure.

The dress code shift has naturally also led to a change in what consumers are buying.

Brands that sell comfortable and athletic clothing have seen major boosts in sales, but workwear and formal wear companies are bearing the weight of this shift. Sales in those segments dropped dramatically during the pandemic, according to Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail.

Retailers such as Ann Taylor, Men’s Wearhouse and Brooks Brothers are feeling this acutely. Ann Taylor filed for bankruptcy protection last week, and Brooks Brothers did so in early July. On Tuesday, Tailored Brands, which owns Men’s Wearhouse, announced it would be closing 500 of its store locations.

“No one is shopping them,” Saunders said of formal wear brands. “They depend on people going into an office — and no one wears full suits on Zoom meetings.”

Ann Taylor and Tailored Brands did not respond to a request for comment. Arthur Wayne, a spokesperson for Brooks Brothers, said that while the company is known for suits, many of its other popular items such as “khakis, polo shirts, sweaters and other sportswear” are “perfect for a more relaxed working environment.”

Most of these types of stores already had issues before the pandemic started because they were a “bit tired” and were struggling to grow and appeal to younger consumers, Saunders said.

But he said even stores such as M.M.LaFleur and Suitsupply, which are popular with that demographic, are taking a big hit during this time.

“Demand is obviously impacted,” said Fokke de Jong, CEO and founder of Suitsupply. “There’s uncertainty about how long this pandemic is going to last in the U.S., but luckily we’re not just based there.”

Sarah LaFleur, founder and CEO of M.M.LaFleur, told NBC News, “We’ve had to get creative with the way we market and talk about our clothes throughout the past few months. We’ve needed to reframe our marketing a bit so customers understand our clothing works well for this moment.”

The underlying business model for these brands is “much more robust,” said Saunders. “They’re suffering from the same issues, but for them it’s a matter of trying to buy their time and wait for things to normalize.”

Work style in many industries had already become much more casual, from hoodie-wearing executives at Twitter and Facebook, to suit-and-tie stalwarts such as Goldman Sachs, which last year announced it would allow a less formal dress code.

The pandemic’s new level of casual dress could bolster that movement, making buttoned-up formal wear in the office seem as out of date as the typing pool or the switchboard.

“Generally, I think the trend has been a relaxing of business attire — and this probably just expedites that a bit more, within reason,” said Andy Shalbrack, who works in finance. When he started in the industry, he used to wear a full suit and tie. Now, such formal wear is mostly only necessary when seeing clients, as a way to show respect.

Now, his new “uniform” involves a lot more shorts — and facial hair.

“It’s the one time you can kind of grow out your beard or mustache, since it’s all conference calls,” Shalbrack said, adding that Zoom video calls are rare in his field.

However, the new casual likely won’t hold up once his team returns to the office, he said.

Already there are signs of people buying more formal clothes in countries that are opening back up as coronavirus cases begin to settle at lower levels.

LVMH, the biggest luxury goods company in the world and the owner of brands such as Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Givenchy, has also noticed a turnaround in sales. For the period between April and June, it reported a 37 percent drop in sales within its fashion and leather goods segment and a 52 percent decrease in its watch and jewelry division. But since June there have been “strong signs” of a recovery, the conglomerate said on Monday.

Another area Saunders sees taking a hit from the pandemic is the subscription services segment. He said companies such as Rent the Runway, which rely on consumers renting clothing for work or special occasions, aren’t doing well right now.

“There have been a lot of issues there because people are just canceling their subscriptions,” Saunders said. “They’re tailored around occasions and working and people needing to look nice, so it’s hard to see how they could come back any time soon.”

Krasnoff said she has already noticed changes in her own habits — and to her bottom line.

“The only online shopping I did at the beginning was just to buy more athleisure and comfy clothes to sit around in,” she said.

And while she’s adjusted to this new lifestyle, she’s grateful it’s only temporary.

“The fun of getting dressed is gone,” Krasnoff said. “But I’m saving a ton on dry cleaning.”Ahiza García-Hodges

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