Retail apparel typically flows through four distinct seasons, each one preceded by a lengthy lead time for manufacturing and shipping to stores. But climate change has had a huge impact on consumer behavior, with warmer winters resulting in plummeting sales in outerwear. The cozy fabrics of cold winters past, such as wools and knits, have fewer buyers, and stores have had excessive stock of sweaters, jackets, hats, scarves and coats. The milder weather means four seasons have essentially merged into two, with customers wearing clothes longer and retailers struggling to discover ways to avoid oversupply and clearance sales.
Lifestyle and Weather Impact Sales
Consumers who still purchase cold weather apparel do so late in the season, when they are certain the weather will actually warrant such purchases. Manufacturers face increasing pressure to delay shipment until retailers are certain they can move stock. In the absence of such mitigating tactics, stores have to cut prices. Sales are good for customers, but as they get used to reduced prices, it gets harder for brands to justify higher costs.
Although climate change is a definite factor in the decline in winter apparel sales, lifestyle changes over the past two decades are also important. Increasingly, people are homebodies content to stay inside in a climate-controlled environment. They have access to work and entertainment through technology that does not require them to venture outside. The lack of a daily commute in bone-chilling temperatures might leave a consumer with little incentive to stock up on winter wear.
Rising Costs of Natural Fabric
Climate change is a double blow to manufacturers who trade in natural fabrics, such as cotton. As different weather patterns are changing what people choose to wear, it is also harder to cultivate plants that create ubiquitous clothing. Costs for materials are going up as sales are going down. Rising temperatures and heavy water use have made it harder to produce cotton, for example, with the material currently priced at $70 per pound, up from $60 a pound just one year ago.
Large Retailers Calling in Experts
The change in customer behavior has not gone unnoticed by large retail chains that trade in a variety of consumer goods. Since there is money in the form of sales on the line, few in the retail industry are climate change deniers. Some have created climate teams to assess buying trends with relation to the weather. Target has had such a team in place since 2004. These advisers tell brands with what to stock the shelves and at what time of year.
Boutiques Take Advantage of Short Leads
Brands with a short lead time between production and the sales room floor have a distinct advantage when unpredictable weather patterns impact what goes out the door. Zara, for example, maintains a small run of stock and receives daily feedback from all of its stores. Their product development cycle of just a few weeks makes them agile enough to respond to changing consumer trends.
Choosing Environmentally Friendly Producers
The irony for many observers of the fashion industry is that apparel manufacturing uses harmful dyes, expels toxic emissions from plants and otherwise engages in practices that are particularly bad for the environment. It is therefore a contributor to the problem of climate change. A note of hope for designers and manufacturers may come in knowing that consumers, particularly ethically conscious millennials, are choosing to buy from clothing companies that take care of the environment. When makers of winter clothing need a substitute revenue stream, they can consider these alternative fashion lines.