Commonly viewed as a wardrobe necessity, underwear is enjoying an expanding retail market. Recent industry startups, new advertising campaigns, retail and brand collaborations, and product extensions are stimulating competition, and this product category offers the opportunity to build on the basics through innovations.
Underwear sales suffered along with sales in all other apparel categories in 2009. Although an average of 25% of consumers purchase underwear each month, consumers delayed purchasing underwear, just as they did apparel in other categories.
Retailers responded to lower consumer demand by reducing inventories — imports of underwear declined 15% from 2008 to 2009, compared with 6% for total apparel imports. As consumers begin to return to stores, underwear sales are showing signs of recovery.
Consumers own an average of 17 pairs of underwear (19 for women and 16 for men), and underwear accounts for 16% of the apparel items in both women’s and men’s wardrobes.
Over two thirds of underwear products contain cotton, and 83% of consumers prefer to wear underwear made from cotton or cotton blends.
The popularity of cotton underwear relates to consumers’ perceptions of cotton as comfortable (82% of consumers), soft (80%), and high-quality (79%) — which are also three of the top four factors that drive their underwear purchase decisions.
In addition, consumers seek value. The majority of consumers (59%) buy most of their underwear at mass merchants, indicating concern about price (cited as an important factor by 85% of consumers). On average, consumers expect their underwear to last about 18 months, and they add to or replace their underwear assortment every 7 months (1.7 times per year).
Consumers are more likely to plan their underwear purchases than their overall purchases of apparel (71% vs. 67%), which allows them to budget for necessary items.
Style was cited as an important factor in underwear purchases by 79% of consumers. However, the importance of style differs greatly among segments of consumers. These differences could be related to the types of clothing consumers are wearing, as underwear can affect both the appearance and performance of the garments worn over it.
Over half of consumers (52%) cited brand as an important factor in underwear purchases. Brand is more important to consumers’ underwear purchases than to their overall apparel purchases. Furthermore, brand becomes increasingly important with age — just the opposite of what is seen for apparel purchases in general. Consumers apparently rely on brand to signal that underwear will meet their requirements for the basics of comfort, fit, and quality.
While most underwear purchases are driven by “need,” performance features could entice consumers to purchase based on “want.” When shopping for underwear, consumers seek features that will enhance underwear’s feel, comfort, and functionality. Over half (55%) cite performance features as an important factor in their purchase decisions. However, there is an opportunity to grow the market for underwear with performance features. Cotton Incorporated’s Retail Monitor™ survey found that only about 5% of underwear at retail was marketed as offering a performance feature. A niche that could draw consumers is underwear for athletic use — 11% of consumers (18% of men and 7% of women) said they had purchased underwear specifically for use in athletics or exercise. Consumers’ interest in underwear products with innovative features suggests that this is an area with potential for market expansion with features such as odor resistance or moisture wicking.
Consumers know what they want in underwear — comfort, fit, quality, softness, and durability, which are natural qualities of cotton. Data from Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor and Retail Monitor suggest that the underwear market’s full potential is not being tapped. Offering more underwear products with performance features could encourage consumers to see underwear as more than a bare necessity.
About the Research
Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor™ survey is a monthly on-line research study that gauges the attitudes and behavior 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. Cotton Incorporated’s Retail Monitor™ survey is a quarterly survey of textile products carried by national mass-merchant, chain, department, and specialty stores. It is conducted in stores and via the Internet, and data are collected on product category, brand, fiber content, fabrication, price, country of origin, and product features.