An abundance of clothing means shoppers can look forward to holiday discounts.  : NPR

An abundance of clothing means shoppers can look forward to holiday discounts. : NPR

An abundance of clothing means shoppers can look forward to holiday discounts.  : NPR


Clothing stores have slashed prices and tried to sell off excess inventory.

Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images


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Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images


Clothing stores have slashed prices and tried to sell off excess inventory.

Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Remember when we couldn’t get enough free time or pajamas?

Now, the hottest question for clothing retailers is whether they have an “inventory glut” — too many extra styles, sizes or colors that aren’t selling well.

For example, Levi’s ended up with too many jeans, Gap with too many shirts and hoodies, Kohl’s with fleece and pyjamas. Nike has discounted shorts, T-shirts and sandals, and Adidas and Under Armor have also acknowledged their own inventory problems.

“We’ve really seen it across the board,” says Brian Ehrig, a partner in the consumer practice of consulting firm Kearney. “We’re talking tops, bottoms, sleepwear—all of those products are really seeing a lot of abundance.”

This is a story of over-ordering, shipping chaos and constant pandemic changes in shopping habits. And it ends with full racks, price cuts and promises of great holiday offers.

Retailers are struggling to get orders right

In any given year, clothing stores do a bit of a tightrope act, trying to predict trends and order items months in advance. The pandemic made it extra difficult. First, in an instant, lockdowns caused millions of people to trade their office clothes for sweatpants and house dresses. With shoppers staying at home, malls emptied and major clothing chains went bankrupt.

Then came a shopping boom. Dealers step on the gas pedal and order more and more. Then the rather sudden bonanza of travel, personal parties and the return to the office meant that everything changed – again.

“A lot of the things that people have been wearing for the last couple of years are not the same things that they’re wearing now,” says Ehrig.

Through it all, shipments from Asia have experienced many disruptions. Do you remember last winter’s delays and shortages? Keen to avoid a repeat, many stores decided not to take any chances with this year’s Christmas shopping demand, placing those orders even earlier than usual.

“No one wants to miss the holidays, you really need that product,” says Cristina Fernández, senior analyst at Telesey Advisory Group. “But now you have it – and you have too much. So that’s the dilemma.”

For example, Nike CFO Matt Friend said the company had “a few seasons in the market at the same time” as delayed shipments for the spring, summer and fall seasons arrived late, just as holiday orders were starting to arrive early.

Not a necessity, clothes have had falling prices

Meanwhile, inflation has caused more shoppers to think long and hard about how much they are willing to spend on clothing.

“It contributed 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 making discretionary purchases — with clothing rarely considered a necessity.

Less demand means less inflation: Clothing prices are up less than other goods, just 4% higher than a year ago, and have actually fallen in the past two months. Spending at clothing stores rose about 3% in October compared to last year, and is expected to slow over the holiday season.

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

Most companies, including Gap and J.Crew, have addressed their inventory concerns by cutting prices and launching sales. Some are packing away more evergreen items, like generic t-shirts they might try to sell next year. Many clothes are also on their way to discount chains such as TJMaxx 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 is a completely different thing.

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