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COVID-19 Apr 27, 2020 10 min read

All dressed up and nowhere to go – how to promote formal wear styles during lockdown

With lounge and activewear at the forefront of promotions, how can retailers generate interest for going-out styles during COVID-19?

formal wear

As date nights, happy hours and vacations look different these days, retailers have the opportunity to get creative with existing occasionwear and going-out assortments.

During this time of uncertainty, going-out assortments and merchandising stories may not look as initially planned. Read on as we present how retailers can reposition dresses, suits and heels, as well as the trends to promote moving forward. 

Need help reworking your assortment amidst the COVID-19 crisis? Get in touch with our dedicated team of Retail Experts.

What you need to know about dresses

Both the US and UK markets saw a steady incline in dress arrivals from December 2019 to February 2020. For Q1 2020, the US saw an overall increase of 12%, while the UK grew by 16% compared to Q1 2019.  Retailers like Ann Taylor, Boden, Dorothy Perkins and other top labels contributed by increasing investment in this category in January and February, YoY. 

However newness dipped as loungewear flooded the market in March, coinciding with stricter lockdown laws as confirmed cases of COVID-19 climbed. Between February to March, the US and UK saw a decline of 11% and 6%, respectively. This decrease is attributed to the top stockist labels across both regions – boohoo, PrettyLittleThing and Zara – reducing new arrivals ranging from 14% to 33% month-on-month.

With social distancing becoming the norm in April, deliveries plummeted further as a result of disrupted supply chains and canceled orders. The overall number of new dress styles arriving from April 1st to 20th dropped 58% YoY.

Conclusively, the data emphasizes that retailers were initially supporting dresses more YoY, off the back on their viral success last year. Now in light of the global pandemic, retailers have since pivoted from their original strategy.

Of Q1 arrivals that saw a first sell out during the same time frame, 33% of those styles were black, followed by neutrals at 10%. In addition, florals made up 31% of styles that saw a first sell out as spring collections dropped and were heavily promoted via email. Midi length dresses were not only heavily invested in YoY, but also saw a 17% sell out rate. Dresses with long sleeves sold out at a rate of 25% – not just coming out of modest dressing but also from mini-length shapes in going-out assortments. Tacking onto going-out stories, bodycon shapes had a first sell out rate of 21%. Among products that had an impressive sell out rate, trends including puff sleeves, ruffles/frills and high-necklines also performed well.

The depth of discounts this spring was deeper than last spring. Unlike the relatively steady discount proportion month to month in 2019, the amount of products that were discounted in 2020 varied by month. There was a decline in the number of products on sale from December to February, with that number peaking again in March.

Both Spring 2019 and 2020 had relatively consistent discount depths, with the exception of March 2020 having stronger discounts YoY. Not only were there heavier discounts that month, from February to March the proportion of products on sale spiked. This suggests with people staying indoors, retailers were trying to move products quickly and at a lower price.

Is anyone buying heels right now?

While COVID-19 has disrupted new season trade across categories, arrivals in the US footwear market are in line with SS19, with intake up by 1% overall. New arrivals in the UK had a more dramatic decline of 21%. With home workouts boosting the activewear market, sneakers continue to snatch consumers focus, accounting for 17% of the US mass market’s footwear assortment and over a fifth of the UK’s.

In turn, retailers have pulled back on dressier footwear styles this season with the total arrivals of heels across the US and UK declining by 18% YoY from January until now. Retailers have significantly upped the number of heeled styles discounted compared to 2019 to entice customers stuck indoors to shop online – particularly in the US, where 60% of heels online for March were reduced. Despite these dramatic markdowns, the number of sell outs over this time fell by 11% YoY, resulting in retailers unnecessarily devaluing their stock. Avoid marking down styles that lend themselves to Fall 2020 trends by including platform heels into 70’s inspired stories and working neutrals and earthy browns into head-to-tonal styling. Several of spring’s occasionwear trends can continue to perform well for the fall party period. Even during these challenging times, and off the back of Bottega Veneta‘s sartorial influence, square toe heeled mules have performed well so far for SS20 and will remain notable for seasons to come. Strappy and barely-there styles saw commercial success last year and won’t fall out of favor. Pastel accessories were just as big for fall 2020 as for spring, boding well for carryover stock. On a styling note, lilac platforms were paired with opaque tights at Celine FW20 – a runway approved way to wear spring footwear out of season.

Although events are halted, retailers continue to push heels in their customer communications to cut through the influx of loungewear and as a feel-good way to accessorize outfits for virtual and future events.

The strongest messages include encouragement to treat yourself and spring collection promotions. Ganni tapped into the notion of dressing up for yourself by communicating ‘new season shoes to dance around your house in.’

How coronavirus will impact the suit

With businesses across the globe turning to working remotely for the foreseeable future, traditional workwear and ‘office dress code’ communications now seem out of touch. Promote current workwear stock in line with online video calls for interviews and meetings. Look to Marine Layer, promoting its shirting ‘for an instant business-on-top look’ for inspiration. 

Over March, the number of tailoring products on discount was up 15% in the US and 9% in the UK, YoY. Be careful not to discount too much, too quickly. Tailoring trends move much slower, so your current stock will still be viable in the future. While demand for suiting may be lower than usual, appeal to your consumer’s needs for future events – weddings will be key here.

Arrivals for double-breasted blazers are up 50% for 2020 so far compared to last year. This once predominantly luxury and premium trend is trickling down to the mass market – the likes of boohooMAN and Topman are now stocking the style. This silhouette will last through the year and works particularly well for mix and match options. Consider a lighter wool with stretch to give your consumers all year round wearability, or transition from linen to wool if you can offer more variety. Presence on the Fall 2020 runway secures this blazer for upcoming seasons.

Bright colored suits have previously seen high discounting. However, with retailers picking up communication for this trend, we note stronger movement and fewer discounts. While little change is noted in the investment of bolder color options, replenishment for red, maroon and orange suiting currently in stock have increased 6% in the UK and 19% in the US, YoY. With the likes of Timothée Chalamet and Harry Styles leading the way, feature more color within your assortment moving forward.

Linen’s presence within the mass market continues to grow, noting arrivals across the US and UK rising 26% comparing 2020 so far to 2019. Thanks to blends and anti-wrinkle finishes, this fabrication is no longer attached to difficult care instructions. Pricing has also been integral to its rise in popularity and will be vital to maintain consumer demand. The linen blazer has seen pricing drop 9% in the US and 32% in the UK, YoY. Opt for blends over 100% linen to keep pricing competitive.

Date night

For customers, it can feel limiting to shift date nights from going out to an activity in the confines of their home. Whether it’s a first time meeting via video chat or celebrating an anniversary at home, this special night can still be preserved. Date night communications continue to be pushed by retailers with Topshop emphasizing that ‘date night is ON.’ Focus product on comfortable tops and outerwear for virtual dates, while promoting footwear and accessories for evenings in with your partner. Dresses are still going viral at this time proving there is still demand if the product and advertising is right. A recent example is the success of The Vampire’s Wife’s floral blue dress worn by Villanelle in the new series of Killing Eve, which already sold out for pre-order a day after the episode aired. Reposition similar styles already invested in for date night edits.

Top trends to promote

  • Little black dresses
  • Co-ords 
  • Ruffles
  • Lace 
  • Satin
  • Dress shirts 
  • Tailoring 
  • Bold prints

Virtual happy hour

Conference calls are seeing usage outside the usual corporate set-up, growing as a way for groups of friends and families to stay connected. With this form of communication on the rise, retailers should consider reworking assortments to fit into playful virtual edits like happy hour or after work drinks.

For more formal meetings, endorse stories with ‘looks from the waist up’ such as dramatic necklines and exaggerated sleeves, opting for bold printed shirts for beers with the boys. For a dressier angle on catch-ups over coffee or a girls’ night in, promote oversized or dresses with stretch fabric that can tie in with loungewear trends.

Top trends to promote

  • Square necklines
  • Headbands
  • Structured sleeves
  • Cardigans
  • Statement earrings
  • Printed shirts
  • Polos 
  • Crewneck sweaters

Special occasions

Many are now having to spend occasions indoors, canceling or postponing pre-planned celebrations. Consumers will look to make up for these lost plans with special outfits. Think about birthdays, baby and bridal showers, engagement parties and anniversaries.

If you already send out birthday discounts to customers, incorporate messaging around treating yourself to an outfit for your special day. This is a good opportunity to leverage your spring dress assortment. Consider running add-ons such as balloons, decorations and beauty products. Re-gram customers’ home celebrations to create both a positive vibe on the feed, as well as giving inspiration for others looking to make either their, or someone else’s day memorable in spite of circumstances.

Top trends to promote

  • Dramatic midi and maxi dresses 
  • Color especially white, red & pink 
  • Bold prints 
  • Feminine looks 
  • Shirts 
  • Chinos 
  • Shackets 
  • Suiting

Working from home

Many brands and influencers are providing tips on how to adjust to life working from home. A recurring communication are top edits, as well as the benefits of getting dressed for the day to boost productivity. This provides a strong counter story to loungewear and pajama dressing. A relatively comfy aesthetic should still be adhered to here.

Top trends to promote

  • Throw-on dresses
  • Wool sweaters
  • Trend-led cardigans
  • Stretch denim
  • Travel suits
  • Sweaters

Additionally, Missguided and River Island are just two of the retailers that have gone down the empowering route of ‘dressing up for me.’ Other takes include outfit try on sessions to distract from boredom and ‘sick of sweats’ looks. These angles will appeal to the younger selfie generation, who will still quite simply want to share snaps looking good.

The direction looking ahead

What are the future opportunities for going-out or formal products already in your assortment?

Loungewear

With uncertainty to when lockdown orders will be lifted, consider repositioning hoodie-dresses, oversized silhouettes and dresses in soft fabrics for loungewear and work-from-home appropriate takes.

Dressing up to stay in

With going out edits popular across fast fashion retailers, make those collections work for staying at home and for the future. Playing dress-up for date nights in, birthdays, holidays and more are being promoted by retailers like Revolve – establishing that this style of dress is appropriate for now and for when customers can celebrate together.

Mother’s Day (US)

Capitalize on a Mini Me marketing opportunity for Mother’s Day in the US, coming up on Sunday May 10th. Take note from Monsoon’s approach when it promoted Mother’s Day in the UK on Sunday March 22nd. For a different direction, feature new spring collections, like how Wallis endorsed popular designs which will carry throughout the summer season.

Tried-and-true styles

Hone in on basics and bestsellers, styles that move quickly with little to no discounting, which ensures fuller price sales during this time. J.Crew used the slogan ‘back by popular demand’ while Revolve pushed a sense of urgency for customers to buy before inventory sells. Focusing on these styles over seasonal ones minimizes risk and unnecessary discounting.

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Contributions by Aoife Byrne, Katharine Carter, Tara Drury, Avery Faigen and Kayla Marci