April Retail Report: As Demand Spikes, Supply Issues Remain

The Big Picture

The pandemic rebound seems to be happening faster than anyone thought, with retail sales climbing 9.8% in March as consumer confidence reached its highest level in more than a year. Clothing sales alone rose 18.3%, according to Commerce Department data.

Part of the upswing was fueled by the latest round of $1,400 stimulus checks. But growing vaccination rates are also boosting confidence, helping shoppers feel more comfortable going out and resuming some of their pre-pandemic habits. This was reflected in the latest GDP figures, which showed the economy expanding by 1.6% in the first quarter and on track to hit 6.4% annually.

March Sales
While not anywhere near mass market sales, our specialty stores saw a significant upswing in March as shoppers moved to replenish their outdated wardrobes. Over 80% of our stores either met or beat their sales plans for March, and April demand has been even higher, with some stores getting a boost from Easter and spring break. Trends were particularly strong in women’s ready-to-wear and accessories, and men’s sportswear.

In general, we are seeing more traffic in the South than in the North, partially due to weather, and the fact that Southern states opened earlier from their lockdowns.

Inventory Issues

Now that customers are in the mood to shop, the greatest challenge our merchants face is finding new merchandise, especially in women’s wear. Menswear is on a slower trend cycle and tends not to be as seasonal, so menswear merchants are not facing the same challenges at this time.

Our advice to women’s wear retailers is to look for new, small vendors to add fresh merchandise to your mix, and to fill in the gaps that may exist in your normal vendor structure. There are a number of new players in the market; the pandemic seeded new entrepreneurs who decided to follow their passion for apparel instead of returning to an office.

We also suggest that you make your fill-in orders now. If you wait, the merchandise probably won’t be there.

Even though the market is recovering, changes in demand can happen suddenly, so you need to be flexible, making small changes to your sales plans week-by-week, according to what you’re seeing on the floor. Disciplined planning is your best friend right now.

For fall, don’t overreact to the strong trends in casual and activewear that we’ve seen over the last 6 months. We predict a return to more dressy and tailored looks, so ask your vendors to see them even if their focus is on casual wear.

Blacks’ Bottom Line
Stay flexible in both your plans and your ability to source new products. This upswing is much needed, but it can also be unpredictable.