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Ho-Hum Back-to-School Sales Point to Premium Denim Overload

It’s shoppers like USC student Kelstan Lynch who make the manufacturers of premium jeans a bit uneasy.


Lynch, shopping for her back-to-school clothes, spotted a pair of $250 Antik Denim jeans that were marked down to $150. “I definitely wouldn’t have bought them if they weren’t on sale,” she said. “They are probably the most expensive pants that I’ve bought and they are basically the most amazing, perfect jeans ever. They make my legs look really little and long.”


As the school year gets under way and retailers tally up what’s been a lukewarm season, it’s denim overload that has received the most attention, especially the so-called premium variety that run several hundred dollars a pair. Any slowdown in high-priced denim sales is being watched closely by several locally based jeans manufacturers including True Religion Apparel Inc., Seven For All Mankind LLC and Innovo Group Inc.


It’s not that jeans are becoming unpopular. Far from it: the $14.1 billion jeans market is up 10 percent this year, according to NPD Group, a market research firm.


“If the exact pair of jeans is available that they want, they will make a purchase,” said Andrew Strasmore, president of Fire, a division of local apparel company Topson Downs Inc. “It’s all about perception and label.”


But too many manufacturers are offering too many similar styles, creating a market glut that resulted in price-cutting for the back-to-school season, which ran from mid-July through the Labor Day weekend.


The sheer number of new fashions offered this year is making “the denim jean category as a whole much more competitive,” said Sandy Potter, a principal at Directives West, a retail consulting firm. “The assortment has to be much more compelling because there are more choices of what to put on your bottom.”


Bright colors are out, earth tones are in and pink is no longer the new black. Besides denim, students are buying peasant skirts, bolero jackets, tunics and shawls. The “bare” look includes halter tops and body-hugging T-shirts.


Richard Giss, a partner in Deloitte & Touche LLP’s consumer business practice, expects to see mixed results “because back-to-school shoppers are fickle and you have to be in line with their expectations.”


Complicating the results is whatever effect soaring gasoline prices might have on sales. The early numbers are mixed: The University of Michigan’s monthly survey of consumer sentiment fell to 89.1 in August from 96.5 in July, but the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence index rose to 105.6 from a revised 103.6 in July.


NPD expects a 2 percent overall increase in back-to-school sales while a survey by Macerich Co., a Santa Monica-based real estate investment trust, projects a 25 percent increase over a year earlier.


“The Bohemian style is big this season,” said Daisy Lozano, a sales representative at an American Eagle store at Montebello Town Center. “The Bohemian capris are very popular. We have a lot of college age kids coming in to get them.”


But it always comes back to denim. “I got a new pair of Seven Jeans from Nordstrom,” said Kristen Scott, another USC student. “I’d say the style is now casual cool: casual clothes that are really nice and snappy looking. You can pretty much always find me in jeans or flowing skirts with a cute tank.”



*Staff reporters Katherine Gray and Sarah Filus contributed to this story.

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