E-commerce’s Great Leap Forward

How virtual shopping will impact fashion in 2021 and beyond

Well, we all know what happened in 2020: we went underground and tried to live our lives at the same time. There was no dining out at restaurants and bars, going to sporting events or shopping at the store (we even may have had groceries delivered). We missed out on events, concerts and just being with friends. We stopped going to the office; “WFH” became as much a part of our vocabulary as “WTF.”

But if one industry tool rose in 2020, it was e-commerce. E-commerce was developed to a point where it could take up at least some of the retail slack, if not most of it. Maybe it wasn’t as fun or romantic to make a daily Amazon purchase as it was to run to the store or the mall before, but it saved us.

The effect was astounding. E-commerce, remote learning and online meetings were increasing anyway, but what happened took everyone’s breath away. The Economist magazine, in its “The World in 2021” issue, called it “The Tech-Celeration.” The article quotes McKinsey: “Recent data show that we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks.” In the U.S., we experienced 10 years’ growth in three months. In Italy, it reports, there was a “10-year revolutionary leap.” Yes, e-commerce was steadily growing before, but now — bad-a-bing! — it has become the default.

I can report, as an instructor, that in March 2020, we had to transition to remote learning literally overnight. We got through it, but it was clumsy at best. After myriad articles and meetings (on Zoom and other platforms), we all got some idea of what it took to improve learning when your students are little squares who may or may not choose to reveal themselves visually. Whereas there is no doubt that both students and instructors would prefer the face-to-face mode (unanimous sentiment when students were polled at the end of semester), we learned some things that will be valuable in the future.

In contrast, the same Economist article states that executives they polled were definitely willing to allow more of their employees to work from home permanently. Particularly in the growing technology sector, 34% of executives, up from 22% the prior year, were willing to allow at least a tenth of their employees to work from home two or more days per week. As with remote classes, engagement is the biggest challenge that comes with this change. For the workplace, reduction in takeaways, reaction time, enthusiasm and morale can be business-changing.

While consumers were able to find almost all of what they needed or wanted to buy online, what they didn’t need or want was apparel and accessories. Early on in the pandemic, I tried to convince myself and others that attitude toward work or meetings would be affected by dress. If you dressed smartly, you would work smartly; if you dressed sloppily or casually, it would reflect in your productivity and results. As an instructor, I couldn’t tell students what to wear or where to sit; as a supervisor, I sure could — if I weren’t guilty of the same lackadaisical habits myself. That said, I believed and still believe my presumption was correct.

What happened to apparel in 2020? According to Statista, clothing store sales hid their nadir in April 2020 with nearly $2.2 billion (compared to $21.4 billion in April 2019). It doesn’t get much worse than that. Headline-making bankruptcies abounded as a result of this trend and the inability to physically shop (clothing is a high-touch attribute item, and I don’t care how good online shopping is — buying a new shirt or dress online just is not as good, and it is much easier to walk away from).

So, what happens to the fashion industry? Do people just buy more t-shirts and sweatpants? Do more structured and function-oriented clothes, like suits, dresses, sports coats, ties, etc., go the way of the dinosaurs?

As with the acceleration of e-commerce, other trends will continue to accelerate. The fashion business works best when there is a trend or mood in the country that gets people excited to buy more clothes. Whatever happens next, it is going to be a long road back to shopping. Clothing purchased in the future will have to distinguish itself clearly from others — perhaps with fabric, color or sustainability — to be added to a wardrobe when it isn’t needed. Children who eventually attend school in person will need clothing, as will people who have to go back to the office for at least part of the week. Pockets of consumers, especially Generation Zers, will still shop for distinctive items, and the general public will need a lot more stimulation to get even close to resuming or restructuring their former habits.

The best hope for the fashion industry is human nature. What provides the best chance for rebirth of the industry is the fact that, once allowed, human beings will crave personal contact and appreciate it more than before. People who have been sequestered with Zoom meetings will want to have a laugh with someone in person.

Will that result in a resurgence of the fashion industry to former volume levels? It could, but it will likely be populated by people buying fewer, higher-quality apparel items and accessories. Purchases will be affected more than ever by brand image and social criteria. Does this mean nobody will buy no-name, disposable clothing anymore? Of course not. But the proportion of total fashion purchases will change drastically — hopefully for the better.

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