This month, we debut a series of in-depth market sector reports for the catalog industry. This first 10-page report covers the consumer apparel market – its history, its current state, and an analysis of the trends shaping it now and into the future. Inside, you’ll find a collection of statistics charting the growth and changes in the apparel market in general, and exclusive information and data about the growth of the catalog apparel market in particular, prepared especially for Catalog Age by The NPD Group.
We’ve also included mini-profiles of some of the apparel catalogers we define as “market leaders,” and a handy list of resources you can use to find more information on the apparel market.
THE HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
A historical overview of apparel expenditures by American consumers reveals a number of significant changes throughout the past century. For instance, in 1901 (see chart, below), the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey reported apparel spending per consumer unit at $107 annually – nearly 15% of all purchases. This is more than three times the percentage of expenditures represented by apparel in 1998. Why the huge shift? There was much less merchandise available a century ago (no cars, no electronics, etc.)! In regard to the mail order catalog business, the few catalogs that existed in 1901 (Sears and Spiegel, for instance) served as a major source of necessary, not impulse, apparel for that period’s largely agrarian society.
Moving through history, clothing expenditures fluctuate – significantly in some cases – due in large part to the effects of wars and economic depression or recession. Note, for instance, that spending on clothing during the depression years of the 1930s fell dramatically, and that the post-World War II period of 1950 showed a higher apparel spending level (and an obviously more healthy U.S. economy). Compared to the early 1900s, postwar consumers had a larger variety of products to buy, and a lot more money to buy them with.
Contrasting the 1972-1973 period with 1986-1987 also shows big differences in apparel spending. In less than 15 years, Americans were spending 47% more on clothing (much of that due to higher prices and the increasing number of women entering the work force), but even with such a rise, apparel spending in 1986-1987 represented only about 5% of total spending during the Reagan boom years.
Moving to the 1990s, apparel spending swings back and forth every few years (see chart below). During the late 1990s, some observers claim, a lack of apparel styles that appealed to middle-age women (the biggest spenders on clothing) plus a series of mild winters resulted in a spending decline. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Steven Henderson, chief of branch of information and analysis, consumer expenditures, notes that overall, “the last few years have shown that consumers’ preferences are trending away from spending on apparel.”
When viewed over the past half-century, it’s obvious that clothing purchases are accounting for a smaller portion of consumers’ total expenditures. DuPont corporate economist Robert H. Strouds, commenting at a 1999 meeting of the Knitted Textile Association, noted that compared to total spending, the amount spent on clothing “has dropped from 8.5 cents in the early 1950s to less than 4.5 cents today.” Moreover, apparel prices over the period have not kept up with overall inflation, Strouds noted.
Looking at spending in just the 1987-’97 period (see chart at right), annual apparel purchases declined significantly, going from $2,043 to only $1,729. During this period, spending on men’s clothing declined the most, charting a fall of more than 22% in average annual expenditures. One year later, the picture hadn’t changed much (see chart below). Apparel spending was down 3.2% overall, with only the boys’ clothing expenditure category seeing any upward movement.
Studying the consumer expenditures patterns for just 1997-1998 (see chart, bottom right), you can see that more of total spending is being directed toward housing, dining out, transportation, health care, and personal insurance.