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Retail Industry Updates

‘Dressing Up’ Is Back, But It’s More Casual Than Before, NPD Group Finds

The continued demand for casual, comfortable footwear is one that will likely stick, according to The NPD Group. (iStock/Akintevs)

Will consumers ever dress up again?

Apparel, footwear and beauty analysts from The NPD Group addressed this question during the market researcher’s “Future of Style” event, a question that is no doubt on the minds of many retailers and brands. As many consumers stayed inside during 2020, many beauty, footwear and apparel categories struggled, with sales declining by over $56 billion year over year.

While NPD’s analysts agree that sweatpants and T-shirts — items that were popular to wear while consumers hunkered down at home during the pandemic — will remain popular, one indicator that people are going out more is a pickup in the sales of dresses and shapewear. The week before Easter, according to NPD’s weekly retail data, unit sales of women’s dresses were up 50% compared to the same week in 2019.

“This tells us that she was ready to get out and see family for the holiday, and she wanted to wear something new,” said Kristen Classi-Zummo, apparel analyst for NPD.

Shapewear has also seen a lift in sales since the end of February, but innovation to the category will be important going forward, according to NPD.

“Shapewear will still be in women’s closets, but the ability of brands to innovate and adapt to her new wardrobe, will be crucial for the category,” Classi-Zummo added. “It will be about incorporating more comfort into the category, and offering less structured, more versatile options that are smooth, slim and provide everyday shaping benefits.”

This will be especially important, as the consumer perception of getting dressed up has changed since last year, NPD said.

“As more people go back to work, and as travel and other experiences ramp up, dressing up will come back,” Classi-Zummo said. “However, we had gotten so used to being comfortable, the pendulum won’t swing back 100% in the other direction.”

In fact, one-third of consumers say dressing up has become more casual for them than it was before the pandemic, according to a survey from NPD and market researcher CivicScience.

This could make room for more casual “dressing up” categories, such as jeans and casual pants, especially as growing trends in these categories for women are looser fits. For women’s denim in the first quarter of 2021, high-rise non-skinny fits made up only 15% of the dollar sales but represented over half (53%) of the dollars gained, according to NPD.

Similarly, in the fashion footwear industry, consumers continue to gravitate toward casual and comfort categories, NPD found. Pre-pandemic, dress footwear had been on the decline, with dollar sales of dress footwear down 11% in 2019 versus the prior year. As consumers return to activities and events, the dress categories will benefit, but styles such as casual sandals and fashion sneakers are best poised for long-term recovery — these are the types of categories that consumers were choosing for everyday wear prior to the pandemic, NPD said.

“Brands and retailers should be ready to capitalize on the momentum in dress footwear during the upcoming months, but it is important not to overcorrect,” noted Beth Goldstein, accessories and footwear industry analyst at NPD. “Shifts were happening in the market even prior to the pandemic, and the continued demand for casual, comfortable footwear is one that will likely stick.”

As the world reopens and as mask requirements and other CDC guidelines change, consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable heading out to enjoy social experiences. Early indicators in 2021 show signs of a noticeable recovery in the prestige beauty industry, which was particularly hard-hit by the pandemic as so many beauty products are tied to social usage occasions, according to NPD. While eye products — one category not impeded by mask mandates — captured dollar share during 2020, hair styling products, hair tools, fragrances and contouring makeup have all made appreciable gains in the first quarter of 2021.

“As restrictions continue to be lifted throughout the country and people feel more comfortable going to social gatherings, we’re going to see a boost for prestige beauty, and specifically for makeup,” said Larissa Jensen, vice president and beauty industry advisor for NPD. “With consumers able to show off their faces again, we’re anticipating a return to growth for products like lipsticks and lip glosses, as well as continuing rising sales of contouring makeup highlighters and bronzers.”