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State of Apparel: Athleisure Reigned Supreme in 2021

As the pandemic raged through 2020, apparel sales plummeted a record 77% while we all stayed home in our comfortable old clothes.  But the slump began to turn around in early 2021 as vaccines unleashed restless shoppers from quarantine. We were finally going out—and were ready to trade in those baggy sweatpants for a new look. 

4 Key Takeaways for 2021 Apparel Trends 

  • Customers are coming back to retail and apparel spending is slowly returning, hitting pre-pandemic levels for the first time in April 2021. 
  • Recovery is uneven, brand name stores, athleisure, and discount store subcategories performed well in 2021, increasing their share as well as spend. 
  • Customers are making fewer trips to shop, but they are spending more per trip. 

Let’s dig into some of the data and discover which shopping trends are growing fastest – and how they’re creating new opportunities for brands. 

 2021 Recap: Apparel Bounces Back 

After one of the most challenging years on record, the apparel industry saw sales begin to recover to 2019 levels as early as April 2021. This growth was primarily driven by increases in basket size. Customer counts and number of purchases still lag 2019 levels, but there are a few exceptions. 

Winners for overall spend growth in 2021 included brand name stores, discount, and athleisure apparel subcategories. All three have also increased their sales over 2019 levels: 

  • Branded: +2% over 2019 
  • Discount:  +7% over 2019 
  • Athleisure:  +21% over 2019 

But when it comes to attracting new customers, athleisure and footwear were the stand-out performers this year: 

  •  62% of athleisure customers were new 
  •  69% of footwear customers were new 

Apparel Shopping Trends: Subcategory Spotlight 

What’s behind the consumer behavior that’s pushing these subcategories forward—and what does it mean for your brand? 

Athleisure: Comfort & Practicality 

It’s easy to understand why we reached for joggers and sweatshirts during the early days of the pandemic. But the athleisure trend was going strong long before lockdown. In fact, the ‘casualization’ of America is nothing new. Athletic fashions boomed through the 80s and in the early 2000s. 

This is no flash-in-the-pan fad—and our insights back this up. Athleisure did not see a sales decline in 2020, in part due to the growing popularity of on-demand workouts for exercising at home during the lockdown, which saw 21% growth in sales over the same time period in 2021 vs 2019.  

Unlike most other subcategories, athleisure spend was fueled by growth in the number of customers, purchases, and basket size: 

2021 YTD vs 2019 YTD 

  • Customers: +6.4% 
  • Purchases: + 12.1% 
  • Basket: + 7.8% 

Discount Stores: Hungry for Deals 

After a rough year for the economy, many Americans are still tightening their belts and looking for deals—and they’re finding them at discount stores like Nordstrom Rack, Marshall’s, and TJ Maxx. Consumer spending growth in this subcategory is driven by basket size growth over previous years, despite fewer customers and purchases. 

2021 YTD vs 2019 YTD 

  • Customers:  -8.7% 
  • Purchases: -2.6% 
  • Basket:   +5.7% 

Department Stores: Catching Up 

With sprawling footprints and sizable overhead, department stores are struggling to adapt to the online shopping era. A shrinking middle class that’s feeling the squeeze is heading to discount stores instead. While overall spend has increased since 2020, the numbers still haven’t returned to their year to date (YTD) pre-pandemic levels. 

Like most subcategories, basket size for department stores is up since 2019, but customer counts and purchases are down: 

2021 YTD vs 2019 YTD 

  • Customers:  -13.7% 
  • Trips:  -18.7% 
  • Basket:  +11.4 

Children’s Apparel: Growing Strong 

There’s a strong overlap between people who purchase children’s apparel and those who shop in department stores, and these two subcategories share similar data trends. Children’s apparel sales have increased year-over-year but haven’t fully recovered to 2019 levels. 

Basket size shows an impressive improvement, yet customer counts and purchases are far below 2019 through the same period: 

2021 YTD vs 2019 YTD 

  • Customers: -23.1% 
  • Purchases: -32.8 
  • Basket: +21.0% 

So, what does this mean for retailers?  

People are willing to buy more than they need to reduce the frequency of in-store visits. Brands should focus on continuing to improve their overall experience and lean into omnichannel marketing for sustained growth. 

The takeaway 

2021 ended strong with sales matching or exceeding 2019 levels, and we can expect these sales rates to continue as long as retailers are able to contend with supply chain issues. 

Partner with Cardlytics to Leverage Insight into New Spending Habits 

The state of the apparel industry is never static, but the changes over the past two years have been especially dramatic. Every shift and every new trend creates another opportunity for brands to grow, but only if they can learn how to change, too. 

Cardlytics’ offers a brand-safe, fraud-free advertising platform that allows our partners to reach real people at the right time, all while helping them save money on their purchases. Learn how we deliver guaranteed incremental return on ad spend by contacting us today!  

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