Retail

Optimizing Assortments

January, 2024

By Caletha Crawford, Jasmine Glasheen
As the denim industry looks ahead to 2024, the winners will be those that are laser focused on the tiers, silhouettes and product attributes consumers are responding to most.

The denim category has been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to turn the page on 2023, which proved to be challenging, to say the least. Men’s sales sagged the most with an 8 percent drop compared to 2022, while women’s was down 4 percent YOY. The only relative bright spot was children’s, which saw a 1 percent uptick. But industry watchers say there’s hope, as shoppers look to refresh their wardrobes this year—and look to inject it with some newness. As the industry looks ahead to 2024, the winners will be those that are laser focused on the tiers, silhouettes and product attributes consumers are responding to most.

“Retail stores that specialize in apparel, accessories, and shoes have remained soft in 2023,” said Shelley E. Kohan, associate professor at FIT and senior contributor at Forbes.com. Although the Consumer Price Index showed signs that inflation is cooling down, and prices were becoming more stable leading into 2024, Kohan noted, “consumers are being more selective and surgical about how they are spending, a trend we have seen all year and anticipate going into 2024.”

And this is coming at a time when denim has more competition in the market than ever and consumers’ lifestyles are harder to pin down. There is no one-style-suits-all equation. For instance, there’s a bifurcation between those who continue to seek comfort above all else, and those who are living “la vie en rose” now that the world has reopened, Kohan said. But she said brands have to be aware of “the continued demand for athleisure wear, the shift of preferences of younger generations moving away from jeans, and the increase in remote workers.”

Diane Pollack, founder of the personal styling service Stylempower.com and former consultant at trend forecaster Fashion Snoops, agrees that denim lost ground as the WFH crowd, as well as the casual office workers alike, prioritized comfort but she said it’s also losing share on the other end of the spectrum as well. “Then there are those who welcome dressing up and perhaps getting out of their jeans.”

For those still reaching for jeans, they want the name brands they know and love, just at a lower price. This spells opportunity for certain retailers, according to Maria Rugolo, apparel industry analyst at consumer behavior firm Circana. “Currently, the off-price channel as well as warehouse clubs, are two channels where we see jeans growing in terms of dollar sales,” she said. “The state of the economy and what happens with future inventory will be big factors in how these channels continue to perform into the new year.”

Ultimately, she said part of why denim sales are flagging is boredom as retail responded to the state of the economy with traditional (read: safe) product. And it’s not just denim. Apparel in general is lackluster right now. “The number of new items in the marketplace dropped by double-digits compared to just one year ago,” Rugolo said. A fact that’s counterintuitive for robust sales given that innovation fuels growth. “Even as consumers tighten their spending, they are still seeking out products that make them feel good and give them confidence. This means that there needs to be that balance of newness, innovation, and joy to drum up excitement,” she said.

The good news is, denim shoppers respond to fresh silhouettes. “Stretch, wider fits, high-rise and now even low-rise, etc. were all ways in which we saw the category gain in the past, proving products must continue to evolve,” Rugolo said. Ultimately, she said, opportunities lie in innovation and versatility.

Lorna Hall, director of fashion intelligence at trend forecasting agency WGSN, said beyond wide legs, which are dominant, freshness in women’s is coming from bootcut flares and, for younger consumers, lower rises. Hall is particularly bullish on barrel leg jeans, which she said is a refresh for looser fits. “What we like about this shape is it can bring denim into that smarter dressing remit, which is where it lost some sales to over the past year,” Hall said, adding it works with heels and a blazer or a corset. “This gives it appeal beyond youth to a more trend reactive older consumer who favors a more dressed up groomed look.”

While the straight leg reigns for men, Hall said loose and baggy have likely peaked. “Where we are seeing newness in men’s is via the bootcut flare, the caveat here of course is it is in very small increments and only to the youth segment, here it is very much about testing the style if you have the customer,” she said.

As she looks ahead, Rugolo is optimistic about the new year—but that’s partly predicated on the industry being willing to shake things up. “We anticipate sales to pick up again in 2024, thanks to replenishment cycles coming full circle again, as long as the category remains innovative.”

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