As nearly 20 years of declining U.S. apparel prices came to an end in 2011, fiber prices stabilized at rates 25 to 30 percent higher than in the previous decade. Confronted with these significant challenges, retailers and brands were left to find ways to minimize costs and to save margins. Reconstructing apparel with fewer or less expensive materials was a risk that many in the supply chain took in 2011, while simultaneously raising prices. According to the Consumer Price Index, apparel prices have risen 5.6 percent since the beginning of 2011. Many consumers noticed the changes in clothing quality and coupled with difficult economic conditions, resisted higher prices. Retailers were forced to cut some prices during the back-to-school and holiday sales seasons to encourage consumers to buy. Attempts to maintain profit margins by re-engineering products may have been detrimental to reputations throughout the industry and have continued into the first half of 2012.
Quality and price have always been important to consumers. More than 9 out of 10 consumers say price (92%) and quality (91%) are important in their apparel purchase decisions. Nearly two decades ago, the majority of consumers agreed they would pay more for better-quality clothing rather than sacrifice quality for a lower price. However, with the increase in low-priced mass merchants, cross-channel shopping, and the adoption of fast-fashion, the percentage of consumers willing to pay a premium for quality eroded. During the recession, the share of consumers willing to pay more for quality was surpassed by those stating that they were willing to sacrifice some quality for a better price. Current consumers’ opinions were formed during a period when retailers and brands were not downgrading products and quality options were available at all types of retail channels.
Over the past year, consumers have noticed significant changes in apparel products being offered at retail. Nearly 7 out of 10 consumers (69%) say clothing prices have increased compared to last year, while nearly three-fourths (73%) say clothing does not last as long as it used to. The majority of consumers (60%) also say clothing fabrics have gotten thinner, and 41 percent say the quality of clothing has decreased. The changes consumers are noticing in clothes offerings at retail are directly related to their idea of “good quality.” Consumers define good-quality clothing as “durable or long lasting” (58%), “made of good, strong fibers or materials” (23%), “made well” (12%), and “good value or worth the money” (11%). Over the past few years, consumers’ definitions of quality clothing have not changed. However, savvy consumers realize that the quality of their clothing options has decreased, leading many consumers to believe they are paying more and getting less.
Clothing durability and longevity are areas where most consumers said they have seen a decline in apparel quality; however, consumers have expectations for how long their clothing should last. For example, according to Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey, consumers expect their jeans to last an average of four years. When consumers notice their jeans starting to fall apart after one year, retailers can expect to receive complaints from their customers. The Internet also provides dissatisfied customers with the opportunity to inform other potential buyers to beware as shown in the nearby comment from an apparel retailer’s website:
Other factors that compromise the longevity of consumers’ clothing relate to durability issues that result after laundering. In many cases, issues with clothing fading, shrinking, and pilling may be the fault of consumers’ poor laundering habits; however, these problems can also be caused by changes in clothing quality, and ultimately consumers may associate these durability issues with the brand or retailer. More than eight out of ten consumers have experienced their clothing fading (91%), pilling (87%), losing shape (84%), or shrinking (83%). Among those who have experienced durability issues, most say they are bothered when their clothing shrinks (85%), loses its shape (82%), pills (81%), or fades (78%).
Due to escalating fiber prices in 2010/2011, some brands and retailers chose to switch fibers in key product categories, and consumers are aware of the change. More than half of consumers (54%) say they have observed a switch in clothing fibers away from cotton. Data from OTEXA on imported apparel coming into the U.S. showed cotton-dominant clothing (clothes containing 51% cotton or greater) declined 11.8 percent in 2011 compared to 2010, while man-made-dominant apparel imports increased 8.3 percent, indicating a switch from cotton to synthetic fibers among apparel importers. Because more than 6 out of 10 consumers (62%) say cotton clothing tends to be higher in quality than synthetic clothing, shifts away from cotton could be seen by many as a shift away from quality. More than half of consumers say they are bothered that retailers/brands would substitute synthetic fibers for cotton in their jeans (58%) and T-shirts (58%). The majority of consumers say they are even willing to pay a premium to keep cotton from being substituted in their jeans (63%) and T-shirts (58%), and some indicate plans to shift their spending dollars to retailers where they can find the quality they desire.
Due to consumers’ evolving awareness of price versus quality, manufacturers will need to keep a focus on finding ways to add value to clothing. Regardless of the type of store, more than half of consumers have high quality expectations for clothing offered at department stores (84%), chain stores (80%), specialty stores (79%), off-price stores (57%), and mass merchants (50%). With higher prices at retail and tight budgets carried over from the recession, it makes sense that 73 percent of consumers expect to wear new clothing longer than in the past. Manufacturers must find ways to enhance quality in order to minimize clothing returns, prevent discounting, and restore brand reputation. Cotton Incorporated has recently published a DVD to assist in these efforts and to illustrate cost-saving ways to help navigate common clothing quality issues faced today. More information is available at cottoninc.com/rd/QualityCD. Because shoppers are savvier and less brand- and store-loyal than ever, it is essential that the apparel offered at retail meets their quality expectations.
ABOUT THE RESEARCH
Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ survey is a monthly online research study that gauges the attitudes and behaviors of U.S. consumers regarding clothing, appearance, fashion, home furnishings, fiber selection, and other topics. Each year, 6,000 consumers are surveyed, 60% female and 40% male, aged 13 to 70, and representative of the U.S. population based on ethnicity, income, education, and geography.