Is Back-to-Office the New Back-to-School?

The back-to-school shopping season is in full swing. But there’s another event on the horizon that could be just as lucrative at ringing up sales at retailers and consumer goods groups: back-to-work.

The start of the school term — largely-in person this year — will see parents buying staples such as clothing and electronics. But in  the shifting world of employment, customers and retailers are figuring out what will fill out the return-to-office shopping list. That’s a challenge for stores and big consumer groups grappling with snarled up supply chains and rising costs.

Is Back-to-Office the New Back-to-School?

While some Wall Street firms already require most of their U.S. employees to keep regular office hours, the trickle is expected to turn into a flow this fall on both sides of the Atlantic.

After 18 months remote, the jolt of traveling to the office — and mixing with colleagues —  will inevitably spur spending. Apparel is the most obvious category. Some 36% of Americans surveyed by Nordstrom Inc. in June said they had not bought new professional wear since before the pandemic. The department store has seen a 165% increase in searches for “work clothes” over the past few months.  

The office outfits last worn in March 2020 now feel drab and dated. While casualization was already gathering pace, 18 months in sweat pants have probably produced the same epiphany around the world: Why can’t our office attire be just as comfortable?

At the same time, many people have changed size, either by slimming down from exercise, or piling on the lockdown pounds.  Almost a quarter of the Americans surveyed by consumer research group GlobalData said they planned to buy new clothes because what they have no longer fits.

Is Back-to-Office the New Back-to-School?

Both consumers and retailers are grappling with wardrobes upended by the outbreak. To have styles in store now, chains would have had to order in the spring, when we were at peak sweatpants. While some, such as Zara owner Inditex SA can react quickly to shifting trends, many cannot.

Some groups are trying to redefine the new aesthetic. Lululemon Athletica Inc.’s push into more structured garments — such as shirts, dresses, trousers and jumpsuits, as well as a wide range of comfortable yet office-appropriate pants for men — offers a glimpse of what the hybrid uniform might look like. Hugo Boss AG will early next year introduce what it refers to as “the suit of the future,” which is wrinkle- and water-resistant and contains stretch, making it suitable for everyday wear and travel. British retailer Marks & Spencer Group Plc is already offering a suit made out of black or navy stretch jersey fabric, which has proven popular. A navy short trouser to coordinate with the blazer has now sold out.

But retailers also need to tread carefully. The rules of the work wardrobe haven’t been ripped up completely. Flouting them is a risk for those who specialize in more slouchy styles. Groups from Ralph Lauren Corp. to Stitch Fix Inc. are reporting more appetite for business-friendly attire among both men and women.

Winser London, a U.K. based online retailer that specializes in premium professional wear, has seen sales of its signature Grace miracle dress and silk shirts increase significantly over the past few months. The fitted frock  has now returned to being one of the company’s top sellers, the position it held before the virus took hold. While the Grace is suitable for social occasions, it is the classic power dress worn by working women in Europe and the U.S., a clear indication they are preparing to swap Zoom for in-person meetings. It is also a popular choice for job interviews, perhaps underlining just how many people are considering changing roles right now, and want to dress to impress prospective employers.

Is Back-to-Office the New Back-to-School?

It’s not just clothing sales that could benefit from back-to-work. More people walking or cycling could see a switch from a briefcase or laptop bag to a backpack. Water bottles and reusable coffee cups may have perished after being unused for 18 months — and need to be replaced. Lost earbuds too. Driving to work again may even mean buying in-car air freshener.

New routines also demand a restocking of cosmetics and personal care items, from lipsticks to beard trimmers. Mini-toiletries — dry shampoo, deodorant and mouthwash — are usually associated with travel, and so will likely have been hurt by fewer vacations. But they are useful for sprucing up after gym visits — which could also increase with many fitness centers located in business areas. They will be handy in a desk drawer too, for the resumption of those impromptu after-work drinks.

Of course, this could all be jeopardized by another wave of coronavirus cases.  A rise in infections could see RTO postponed until later in the fall or beyond. On Thursday, Amazon.com Inc. delayed its plans to have employees come to work until the week of Jan. 3. It had originally targeted September for the return.

For retailers and consumer goods groups, a delay is manageable. It could extend pre-office buying through the fall and even into the first quarter of next year. But most importantly, amid the continuing uncertainty about what real life — rather than remote employment — looks like,  it will give them more time to work it out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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