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Apparel Stores Won’t Rejoice in Back-to-School Days

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The forecast for the sector is among the weakest this season, for reasons from a greater savings rate to China’s economic woes.

Downgrade: Overall sales for the back-to-school season are forecast to grow just 2.7%, a sharp decline from the year-ago period. Illustration: William Waitzman for Barron’s

As students prepare to return to school, one thing is becoming clear: They may not be hitting the school-house door dressed in the latest fashions.

Indeed, the forecast for apparel sales growth is among the weakest sectors in an annual back-to-school forecast issued by retail research consultant Customer Growth Partners. The firm projects apparel-store sales from July through September rising just 1.5% from the period a year ago. Worse still is the outlook for department-store sales, which are expected to drop 3.5%, though Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, which cater to a wealthier customer, should do well.

”It’s going to be the worst back-to-school season since 2009,” says CGP President Craig Johnson. Overall sales, which include all retail categories except restaurants, automobiles, gasoline, home improvement, and groceries, are forecast to rise a tepid 2.7%, to $512 billion. That will sharply trail last year’s 4.2% growth.

The chief reason for the slowing pace is real incomes, which Johnson says have been ”flat if not negative for 80% of American households.” He also cites an increase in the savings rate, the strong dollar, and a weakening Chinese economy, which affects the foreign tourist trade.

Some categories are bucking the trend, Johnson says, with performance wear a clear apparel standout. He says exercise clothes, though a small sector, is growing 18% a year, which should benefit outfits like Lululemon and Under Armour. The one thing that continues to be a must-have? Footwear, especially boots.ÊÊÊ

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