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Apparel sales dip from COVID-19's impact, but it's not all doom, gloom

Published July 28, 2020

BOULDER, Colo. (BRAIN) — While year-over-year IBD bicycle sales through May have grown by 30% and other categories also have seen increases, apparel sales declined by 10%, according to the NPD Group. Industry suppliers and retailers revealed a multitude of factors in this decline, while some have found creative ways to buck the trend.

Holly Wiese, owner of store design and merchandising firm 3 Dots Design, sees similar COVID-19 impacts in run, outdoor, and other apparel-driven retailers as well as cycling. 

"Apparel was already a challenging category for shops, and now customers often still aren't even allowed in the store," Wiese said. "If folks are coming up to the curb only to pick up bikes or equipment, the apparel is completely out of sight, out of mind."

Browsing in decline

Wiese observed that when customers come in for appointments, they're conscious about keeping their visit brief and focused. "Browsing just isn't on the agenda right now. If somebody does see something that catches their eye, they don't want to take the time or risk of sorting through sizes and trying them on," Wiese said.

Jeff Selzer, general manager of Palo Alto Bicycles and the E-Bike Annex in California, has had a typical apparel experience. "In the full run of the pandemic, March 16 to July 23, our apparel sales were down 28% from last year," Selzer said. "Keep in mind, we weren't allowed to have customers in the store from mid-March to June 1. Even so, our apparel sales from June 1 to now are still down 14%."

Selzer cited two factors in his store's decline, one common to other shops, the other not. 

"First, there are still customers who are uncomfortable even coming in the store, let alone trying on shorts. We've completely lost that business. Second, we have a really boutiquey product mix. Only about 10% of sales are with popular-priced brands like Pearl (Izumi) and Endura. We do mostly Assos, Cafe du Cycliste, 7mesh, Pas Normal, and we run exceptionally lean and order often from them."

"So on April 15, we faced a 'take-it-or-lose-it' situation with our preseason orders, and sales were still dead. So we canceled all these apparel orders.”

Selzer noted that sales likely would be about even with previous years if he had adequate inventory.

Suppliers face different challenges. Castelli Director of Marketing Steve Chapin detailed the swings in fortune as the pandemic evolved. 

"We've gone from one extreme to the other," Chapin said. "Early on, we were quite worried about shops being able to even take their orders, and while we didn't want a warehouse full of product, we certainly didn't want to put any additional strain on shops in taking orders they wouldn't be able to sell through.

"But this period of uncertainty was brief, or at least it seems so now. After the first couple months of store closures and consumer uncertainty, we have seen our IBD business rebound in a big way." 

Chapin estimated that Castelli’s year-over-year in-line sales are up almost 30% across all channels.

Primal is not faring nearly as well. CEO Dave Edwards reported that its cycling business was off 50% for the first six months and a strong July has helped it back to 33% down. "We've worked for years to become the biggest and best provider to events, and every event is canceled," Edwards said. "We're doing our best to survive, and we haven't laid anyone off. Fortunately, we rolled into the pandemic with strong cash reserves."

Mask manufacturing to the rescue

Like many other apparel suppliers, Primal has entered the mask business to try to keep dollars flowing. "As soon as the bottom started falling out in late February and early March, we started developing masks, and we've sold tens of thousands," Edwards said.

This is more than a me-too effort, as Primal has filed for six patents on its mask technology. "We developed a frame that creates the N95 shape, and we're importing a filter from Korea that can be washed multiple times and exceeds the N95 rating," Edwards said.

The mask, a three-piece kit that retails for $22, soon will be submitted for FDA approval.

Edwards described his focus the past three months as "... all masks all the time. Once this is all in place, we may be able to catch up on revenues for the year. We feel pretty fortunate to still be afloat and that mask demand will last for a considerable amount of time.”

"But the best thing I've heard for apparel is a shop doing fashion shows and streaming them on Facebook live every Friday. Then customers could order via email and get it shipped or pick it up. It was fun for customers to get some new apparel without having to go in and try things on." — Holly Wiese

Chris Haunold, owner of two Idaho Mountain Touring stores in Boise and Meridian, is flourishing despite the national trend. "We've done exceptionally well with cycling clothing this year," Haunold said. "It's been really hard to get the inventory we need."

Strong sales categories, "... are not hardcore roadie stuff, more the looser shorts from Club Ride, Shredly, Dakine and Bontrager," Haunold said. "Anything that looks like fashionable normal clothing that you can ride in then have a beer in."

Haunold cites his decades of experience selling outdoor and casual apparel in addition to cycling wear as a big factor in his success. "You have to know how to buy and merchandise apparel; it's almost a separate business from bikes and gear," he said. "Apparel sales require spotless dressing rooms and people who know how to present it. Fifty to sixty percent of our staff is women, that really helps too."

Tips to sell apparel

As far as tactics to kickstart or increase apparel sales, Wiese shared a couple successful ideas. "A couple run shops have gotten really creative by putting together 'mystery boxes' that are priced lower than their retail value, sort of like a grab bag," Wiese said. "They find out a general size and gender and then put some apparel, socks or nutrition in the boxes and sell online and ship them or do curbside. A fun way for customers to support the retailer, get some new clothing and other cool stuff.

"But the best thing I've heard for apparel is a shop doing fashion shows and streaming them on Facebook live every Friday. Then customers could order via email and get it shipped or pick it up. It was fun for customers to get some new apparel without having to go in and try things on."

Chapin summed up the forward-going opportunity from Castelli's point of view.

"The bike categories which are seeing the greatest growth — adult leisure, kids, e-bikes, lower-priced performance — are great signs for the future but might not have a big and immediate impact on apparel.

"As an industry, we need to do everything we can to be inviting, inclusive, and make sure these folks remain interested in the sport of cycling. Getting more people on bikes is always a great thing.”

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