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Why You Aren’t Buying Clothes — But Should Be — Post-COVID-19

I first wrote this article in December of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic had reached the U.S. Now, it’s not only still valid, but I believe it contains critical information and concepts for survival of the fashion industry, as well as direction for us as clothing consumers.

As of December 2019, the following were the top reasons you (and severals others in U.S.) were not buying clothes anymore:

• Clothes are boring. Regardless of price, what can you buy that you don’t already have in your closet? How different is what you have and buy now than what your parents bought?

• Low prices are “not fun anymore.” As CNBC reported in October, “Consumers have reached peak happiness with clothing purchases. … In other words, consumers already own so many clothes that each new item they purchase doesn’t spark happiness.”

• Consumers have given up on department stores as a location for fashion inspiration. According to Statista, between 34% and 51% of Macy’s consumers have given up shopping there in favor of TJ Maxx, Target, Amazon or Kohl’s.

• There is too much to look at online. The paradox of choice has befuddled us by giving us so many options that we don’t know what to pick.

Now that we’re dealing with store closures and the recession resulting from COVID-19, there are even more hurdles to consumers buying clothing. Apparel is one of the least essential purchases, so there are challenges to get someone to buy something new.

That said, many people will want to look good  when we reopen because personal interaction will be the primary reward of reopening. Also, consumers will not have the imperative or opportunity to constantly shop for clothes as they did pre-pandemic; therefore, they will want what they buy to be classic, satisfying and last a longer time.

Does this mean consumers are just not spending money? No. Yet total apparel industry revenue has declined. As CNBC reported, “Put simply, consumers would rather spend their marginal dollar on, say, going out for a meal than on buying a 60th item of clothing in a year.”

We all love clothes — if they make us feel happy, appreciated, powerful or individual. So if we can feel that each purchase of clothes is an investment — not a “fast-food” purchase — we might actually buy more (in dollars). To support that point, over the past few years, the sales and penetration of luxury brands has increased significantly. Why? Because the No. 1 characteristic perceived by consumers is quality.

Action Plan

First, throw out all those items in your wardrobe that you were seduced to buy because of 50% plus another 20%, sale ends today, etc. Buy for value rather than price. Focus your expenditure on items that will satisfy your expectations — not just your wallet.

Next, don’t buy anything that doesn’t make you happy every time you wear it. The self-esteem generated by a bargain will never match the self-esteem which you get from a really great garment. Understand that, in today’s global marketplace, luxury is affordable for many of us. Don’t be afraid — you don’t need any tax returns or certification to buy excellent clothing.

You should also think about clothing in terms of lifetime value. The return on investment for clothing is much better if you buy something for $150 and keep it for five years than if you buy something for $29.99 and it falls apart in less than one year. Buy brands that reflect your values; then, what you are wearing will be a personal statement. If you are not satisfied with the actions taken by a company, don’t buy from it.

There is no better way to express yourself than through the clothes you wear. We will always need clothes. If you are happy with your wardrobe, chances are good that others will be too. Conversely, if you don’t care, neither will they.

Michael Serwetz has worked in global retail, sourcing and marketing. He is the co-founder of Lotus & Michael, a consultant and a teacher at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York University and Baruch College.

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