With vaccine jabs in their arms and fresh stimulus checks in their bank accounts, consumers are primed to spend big in the next several months – and not as they did during last year’s lockdowns, when home improvements, household items and outdoor gear were among the hot items.
As life starts to return to some form of normal, investors are betting that major clothing chains will be big beneficiaries. The best-performing stock in the S&P 500 index year to date is L Brands Inc., corporate parent of Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works. Gap Inc. shares have soared 52% this year, an increase that roughly matches the advance in American Airlines Group Inc. shares amid a resurgence in travel. And Macy’s Inc., Dillard’s Inc. and Kohl’s Corp. have each increased more than 40% this year.
The gains are fueled by a theory of “revenge spending” – the idea that consumers will be snapping up clothes in response to a long spell of fashion deprivation. And there is probably something to that. But just because people are coming out of their sweatpants cocoons does not mean that these particular retailers are destined for a durable bounce back.
Two discrete challenges befell traditional clothing chains during the pandemic. First, demand for apparel suffered from the pause in vacations, parties and business meetings. At the same time, the public-health crisis dislocated market share. This second side effect may continue to pose a problem.
In the earliest days, when nonessential retailers were forced to close stores, one-stop shop Target Corp. remained open, vacuuming up new customers for its well-curated selection of private clothing brands. Department stores such as Dillard’s will struggle to reclaim them. And with remote work an increasing option even as the pandemic subsides, many devotees of Gap-owned Banana Republic will no longer need as much office wear as before, allowing them to allot more of their clothing budgets to casual gear from the likes of Lululemon Athletica Inc.
A broad migration towards online shopping has added to the churn, enabling Amazon.com Inc. to elbow its way further into America’s closets. Wells Fargo estimates that shoppers bought some $ 41 billion in US clothing and footwear on Amazon in 2020; its analysts say that level of volume makes it the top apparel seller in the country, outmuscling even Walmart Inc. While Amazon faces challenges in continuing its growth in apparel, including its hard-to-browse platform, the e-commerce giant has certainly become more of a go-to site for clothes shopping, and that will be stubborn trouble for incumbents.
There are hints that people are starting to buy dressier clothes again as they plan vacations and resume social outings. But that pent-up demand, abetted by stimulus checks, is bound to create a spring and summer mirage of recovery for clothing chains that obscures long-term issues – including the aforementioned market-share realignment – that should make investors cautious.
When L brands bumped up its first-quarter guidance in late March, it said it was largely because of “unusual shifts” driven by stimulus spending and loosening Covid-19 policies – not because of some fresh stroke of strategic genius. Fellow mall denizen Gap was struggling to revitalize its namesake chain for years before the pandemic. It is counting on a boost to that brand this year from its forthcoming Yeezy Gap collaboration with Kanye West. Given the scarce details it has offered about the collection, it’s hard to evaluate its potential. For now, though, I’m skeptical the success of Yeezy in the sneaker business – which has relatively high price points and a collectors’ culture – will easily translate to apparel. Macy’s, even when the pandemic fades, has massive, overdue work ahead in jazzing up its private-label brands and making its experiments in non-mall stores succeed.
I have more faith in other turnaround efforts across the sector, such as Kohl’s coming addition of Sephora shop-in-shops to hundreds of its locations. But in general, investors should not assume a rising tide will lift all boats as people get dressed up again. UBS analysts published a report this week estimating that more than 80,000 stores will close over the next five years. A major portion – about 21,000 of them – will be clothing and accessories stores, a hint of just how much disturbance still lies ahead.
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