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How stores ended up with too many (wrong) clothes

Clothing stores have been cutting prices, trying to sell off their glut of inventory.
Stefani Reynolds
/
AFP via Getty Images
Clothing stores have been cutting prices, trying to sell off their glut of inventory.

Remember when we couldn't get enough athleisure or pajamas?

Now, the hottest question for clothing retailers is whether they've got an "inventory glut" — too many extra styles, sizes or colors that aren't selling that well.

Levi's, for example, ended up with too many jeans, Gap with too many shirts and hoodies, Kohl's with fleece and pajamas. Nike has been discounting shorts, t-shirts and sandals, and Adidas and Under Armor have acknowledged their own inventory issues also.

"We've really seen it across the board," says Brian Ehrig, partner in the consumer practice of the consulting firm Kearney. "We're talking tops, bottoms, sleepwear — all of those products are really seeing quite a glut."

This is a story of over ordering, shipping mayhem and constant pandemic changes to shopping habits. And it ends with full racks, price cuts and promises of big holiday deals.

Retailers struggle to get their orders right

In any year, clothing stores do a bit of a tightrope act, trying to predict trends and order goods months in advance. The pandemic made that extra tricky. First, in a blink of an eye, lockdowns had millions of people trading their office clothes for sweatpants and house dresses. With shoppers staying home, malls emptied out and storied clothing chains tipped into bankruptcy.

Next came a shopping boom. Retailers hit the gas pedal, ordering more and more. Then, the fairly sudden travel bonanza, in-person parties and the return to office meant everything changed – again.

"A lot of the things that people have been wearing over the last couple of years are not the same things that they're wearing now," Ehrig says.

Through it all, shipments from Asia have seen lots of disruptions. Remember last winter's delays and shortages? Eager to avoid any repeat, many stores decided to take no chances with this year's Christmas shopping demand, placing those orders even earlier than usual.

"No one wants to miss the holiday season, you really need that product," says Cristina Fernández, senior research analyst at Telsey Advisory Group. "But now you got it — and you have too much. So that's the dilemma."

For example, Nike CFO Matt Friend said the company had "a few seasons landing in the marketplace at the same time" as delayed shipments for spring, summer and fall seasons arrived too late just as holiday orders began arriving early.

Not a necessity, clothes have seen declining prices

Meanwhile, inflation has led more shoppers to think long and hard about how much they're willing to spend on clothes.

"It added to a confluence of events," Fernández says, "retailers getting some inventory late, orders that (they) didn't really need, and then consumer demand slowing."

Target, Kohl's and other retailers say higher food and gas prices are discouraging people from discretionary purchases — with clothes rarely deemed a necessity.

Less demand means less inflation: Apparel prices are up less than other goods, only 4% higher than a year ago, actually falling for the past two months. Spending at clothing stores rose about 3% in October compared to last year, and is expected to decline over the holidays.

"I think what really caught (retailers) flat-footed is just the pullback and the change in the consumer buying habits," says Adam Davis, who works with department stores and other retailers as managing director at Wells Fargo.

Most companies, including Gap and J.Crew, have tackled their inventory worries by cutting prices and staging sales. Some are packing away more evergreen items, like generic t-shirts they might try to sell next year. Many clothes are also heading to discount chains such as T.J.Maxx or Ross.

Does this mean widespread discounts for the holidays? Davis, Ehrig and Fernández all say, yes, very likely. Will people decide they actually want more clothes? That's a whole other thing.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.