The woes of retailers are often blamed on Amazon.com Inc. and its vise grip on e-commerce shoppers. Consumers glued to their phones would rather browse online instead of venturing out to their local malls, and that’s crushed sales and hastened the bankruptcies of brick-and-mortar stalwarts from American Apparel to Wet Seal.
But that’s not the whole story. The apparel industry seems to have no solution to the dwindling dollars Americans devote to their closets. Many upstarts promising to revolutionize the industry drift away with barely a whimper. Who needs fashion these days when you can express yourself through social media? Why buy that pricey new dress when you could fund a weekend getaway instead?
Apparel has simply lost its appeal. And there doesn’t seem to be a savior in sight. As a result, more and more apparel companies—from big-name department stores to trendy online startups—are folding.
The ingredients for this demise have been brewing for decades. In 1977, clothing accounted for 6.2 percent of U.S. household spending, according to government statistics. Four decades later, it’s plummeted to half that.
Apparel is being displaced by travel, eating out and activities—what’s routinely lumped together as “experiences”—which have grown to 18 percent of purchases. Technology alone, including data charges and media content, accounts for 3.4 percent of spending. That now tops all clothing and footwear expenditures.
Several reasons are behind this shift. Some are beyond the control of apparel companies, as societal changes drove different shopping behavior. But missteps by these companies along the way have hastened the death of clothing.
It used to be that office workers needed suits and ties or pleated pants, long skirts and heels to get through the week. By the early 1990s, that seemed to change. The genesis is debatable, but many chalk it up to tech firms in Silicon Valley pushing a business-casual look dominated by khakis. That trickled into other industries, as casual Fridays became common. Now, office apparel is just as casual on Monday as on Friday for many workers.
Over the past five years, there has been a 10 percentage point spike in employers that permit casual dress any day of the week. The upshot of this is that Americans increasingly need just one wardrobe, because there is so little differentiation between what people wear to work and on the weekends.