The difference in denim sales predicted and reported reveals, while designers try to make fashion, successful strategies mirror consumers’ cravings.
What started as workers’ wear, found home in Hollywood flicks, went fast in designer logos and then later failed facing more fashionable competition has come back as cool. According to retail buyers, jeans are high-desire. Runway-driven forecasts directed brands from Gucci to Gap to deepen their denim-goods assortments. Levi’s new style surge left the brand showing shoppers “how to wear” what was once a classic category. Still, denim sale’s actualities missed many merchants’ buying assumptions. In mid-September Levi’s announced a 5% denim sales decline, the category slipping to their smallest-growing spot.
Still, whether Womenswear Daily or some woman’s blog, a pair of blue backs every styling suggestion. According to Elle’s “55 of Fall’s Best Jeans”, it takes no less than ten styles to survive winter, with an edit spanning from “mom” to moto fits. But when healthy brands like Old Navy said September’s unit sales were a disappointment, business analysts concluded consumers were less deni-primed than merchants determined. Though from the positive, customer-side denim discussions, the issue seems not if shoppers think jeans are in fashion. Rather, the numbers-gap is merchants’ failing to understand ways society’s swing influences why and how shoppers buy denim.
Jeans were the count-on category for customer conversion. If the runway-determined “it” item couldn’t sell mass-market, a brand survived with their blues. Prior fast fashion’s runway access, across-the-board purchases took higher investment. Consumers counted on product observability to activate their spend. And so mid-priced to premium jeans, the masses with identical back-pocket motifs validating their purchase, were a no-guilt buy. As a daily staple, they had low cost-per-wear and strong season-to-season sustainability.
Fast fashion changed the category’s fate. Suddenly, owning runway was a reality. Where the gap between catwalk and can-buy clothes used to make room for the blues to bank-in, when customers could break their diffusion-line constraints, the lesser-creative jeans didn’t land on their shopping lists. As the ease-to-own fads caused closet clutter, and the blog-o-sphere’s mounting fashionistas pushed clothing to more complication, wearers mitigated choice overload by choosing fast-fashion outfits like costumes—for the occasion.
Activities are now a black-or-white dress casual, or creatively fashionable. For the typical leisure lacking unspoken dress constructs, athletic wear finds a fit. It’s ease offsets fast fashion’s intricacies, mall stores mounting with peacock pieces while shoppers prowl them in spandex. In this separation, buyers don’t need grey-area classics like jeans. Around 2012, clothing retailers started to feel the effects. While Gap faced sales failure, the company called 2013 a “breakout year” for their athletic brand Athleta. Similarly, Old Navy, with a fashion-focused buy plan at too-low-to-pass prices, sustains success in selling for those must-be-fashionable moments.
THE HIGH RISE
But with denim’s interest drop, designers identified an opportunity. In the short-attention shopping atmosphere fast-fashion makes and mirrors, consumption trends also rotate rapidly. Customers will snap-back to the simple. The falling of ultra-cheap, imitate everything fast-fashion (Forever 21) to more edited, pricier vertical retailers (Zara) shows the first signs of spanning assortment distress. Blue jeans seem the answer to battle consumers’ excess consumption, an item that thrived as uniform.
Perhaps, given time for this consumer pendulum to swing to classic, denim adopted could alleviate retailer woes. But unable to wait out the turnaround, designers tried to drive jean-adoption by observability, just as how jeans rose-to-fame prior. Since 2014 was the dead-denim year, designers over-pushed the fabric to prove it a fashion. In some cases denim was their show’s core, pieces layered and paired together. Brands differentiated from the out-of-fashion designs by making denim new. Former faux-pauxs like high waists, overalls, and denim skirts are now acceptable to wear. When it wasn’t the focal, designers constructed seventies-derived shows; as fashion trickles down, denim survives the process. Runway commentary validated the effort. Specialty retailers expected their recent-past’s sunnier days ahead. Abercrombie and Fitch hedged their precious turnaround shot on modernized classics like denim.
Fashion’s objective criticism loss inflates the public’s denim acceptance. Magazines are desperate for designers’ ad-spend dollars and bloggers create content to activate affiliate link click-through. They say what the designers put down the runway is consumer motivated to stop from destroying their paycheck chances.
Though in denim-clogging catwalks, designers stripped the function that could make jeans mitigate their misery. Cheap fashion is closer in appearance than specialty store or diffusion line product, if not quality, to runway walked and blogger talked. Catwalk clothing never lasts long; why would buyers spend more than a buck on them? Customers are primed to seek runway product at cheap prices.
Take athletic wear. Shoppers pick up yoga pants, not a runway staple, for near to $100 dollars. They don’t perceive them as “trendy” fashion. Their life-span justifies a higher spend. In contrast, track pants sell better at lower costs. Though also athletic, their runway relevancy makes them temporary. They won’t live in fashion’s future, so customers won’t seek a pair with a long-wear.
Designers employed denim style-diversity to make jeans “new.” Shoppers were not ready for the type they had worn-before. But this stole denim’s simplicity just as customers were showing signs of the trend back to classic. Both choice and consumption overload come with cheap fashion. Customers will default to denim when they grow weary of wondering to buy suede skirts or leather piped-leggings, to find all new tops to match them or pray they have compliments in their closets, and to keep them or carry them to Goodwill when they go “out” in two weeks? Yet in this jean-crazed current state, denim creates the same questions: to buy skinnies, flares, or boyfriend fits for fall?
No surprise, the retailers finding denim sales success figured they needed low prices. They also developed a more customer-functional product to make purchase decisions simple for the customers seeking to slim-down their clothing assortments. Target, a retailer built on delivering inexpensive, on-trend items in ways divergent from fast fashion (as in innovating the designer partnership), reported the denim category led their August apparel sales leap. It took smart advertising and merchandising, like communication of re-designed product and the display of denim, in all its diversity, along with their more-fashionable items.
Retailers can’t stack denim on a back-wall shelf, call it a classic, and make margins like the early 2000s. To see success, they must communicate denim is not a grey-area item. It is a fashion. Though in doing so, they must remember to make prices moderate. As fashion is no-longer constricted to a specific brand-name, shoppers can purchase denim anywhere. Brands need unique and innovative product development to make customers buy denim from them versus the competition.
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