Here's how local shop owners say the pandemic has changed what we're wearing

·9 min read

Jul. 8—MARIETTA — As the pandemic loosens its grip on Georgia and more residents return to work at their offices, local clothing retailers say they've noticed changes in what sells.

As to be expected, some store owners say they're selling more formal and work clothing, as people head to the office, weddings and just get out more. Others say there also seems to be a shift in the type of clothing consumers are buying for those destinations.

Sarah Liz Boutique: 111 Church St., Marietta

For Sarah Willingham, owner of Sarah Liz Boutique on Marietta Square, it's a relief to see more people out shopping again after a tough year. 2019 was the boutique's first full year on the Square, and after the last 18 months, it's been hard to get an understanding of what kind of sales to expect, she said.

But Willingham said she can tell the pandemic has certainly changed consumer behavior.

Customers often don't try on clothes or even set foot in the fitting rooms now, she said. Instead, they want to try the clothes on at home or simply buy and return if they don't fit.

"I would just say a lot of people aren't trying on as much as they used to. They're just buying," Willingham said. "The only reason why I think it's related to COVID is because I get asked a lot, 'Are your fitting rooms open?'"

As for what they're buying, the shop owner said she's selling far more business casual wear and dresses than she was during the pandemic. When people were still mostly holed up at home, she said, most of her sales were in the loungewear category.

"Nobody was going anywhere or doing anything, but now, everybody wants dresses for going to weddings, graduation, college, back-to-school," she said. "So I feel like I'm trying to buy less loungey stuff now and more going out (stuff)."

Square Threads: 77 Church St., Marietta

Just down the street, at Square Threads, a men's suit and accessory shop, owner Boozer McClure reported a similar change in sales.

McClure said he saw more jeans, sports wear and other casual clothing selling during the height of the pandemic, compared to now, when he's seen the sales pendulum swing back toward wedding and other formal and social event attire.

McClure said he's seen a significant uptick in custom suits and tuxedo purchases, as well as tuxedo rentals, which he said tracks with needs for a wedding.

"People are definitely back, engaged in rebuilding their wardrobe," he said, adding sales have been stronger all year. "A lot more weddings are happening, so our formal wear business has been really good."

McClure said he closed for a month in the spring last year, but other than that, business has been "pretty good," a fact he attributes at least in part to the community's support of their favorite local businesses.

Satoria on the Square: 39 North Park Square, Marietta

Tony Hoops, owner of Satoria on the Square, said while he has seen more shoppers looking for items to wear to work, he's noticed a trend within the trend: people are prioritizing comfort.

Hoops said some of it may be explained by the fact that, even as people return to work, some employers are more flexible about working from home. But, he added, some people are simply opting for less formal office wear.

"I'm not selling any dressy clothes. For instance, for two years now, I haven't ordered one gown, because nobody's going to any proms or any big auspicious occasions or formal dances or anything like that," Hoops said, adding that he acknowledges people are again looking for clothes to "get out" in. But he said, "For instance, I'm not selling a lot of skirts and dresses. I'm selling a lot of leggings and tunics, but it's still dressy leggings and tunics. You can still go out in it."

Hoops said he's selling lots of maxi dresses — or full-length dresses — an item he said he hasn't been able to sell in 16 years. Normally, he sells one or two of the easily-donned dresses in a season, versus the 16 he's sold this year.

Customers are also opting for comfortable flats over heels.

"I haven't sold one pair," he said of the latter.

It's hard to say whether the trends will stay around, he said, but he's looking forward to occasions like Christmas, when he expects to see a "huge influx" in sales to customers who are starved for the holiday parties they were forced to miss last year.

And, like some of the other business owners who spoke with the MDJ, Hoops noted that his store hadn't fared terribly through the pandemic, thanks to dedicated regulars.

The Avenue West Cobb: 3625 Dallas Highway

Meanwhile, shops at The Avenue West Cobb report overall sales are up, with apparel sales rocketing up to 365% higher in May than on average for the month, according to Jessica Peterson, marketing coordinator for the shopping center.

Peterson said men's apparel sales at the shopping center are up 44% so far this year over last year, unisex apparel is up 49% and women's apparel is up 85%.

In the height of the pandemic, clothing stores took a beating, Peterson said, with men's apparel and clothing stores getting hit the worst.

Since sales have begun to return, Kari Forge, manager of the Jos. A. Bank at The Avenue West Cobb, reported requests for alterations in men's clothing have also increased.

"One can only assume that could stem from people staying home and not getting as much activity as pre-pandemic times and possibly gaining the dreaded 'COVID-15' (pounds)," Peterson said.

Forge also said men are seeking stylish new wardrobes after more than a year largely without social events.

Not all trends noted by west Cobb retailers have been related to clothing. Peterson said Altar'd State, a women's clothing and accessory shop already known for its "excellent customer service," focused heavily on making customers feel "normal" again when they visited to shop.

The store has seen higher sales than pre-pandemic levels in 2019, she said, and attributes that to the added efforts to provide an "extra personal experience" during each visit.

The Ivy Lane: 3605 Sandy Plains Road, east Cobb

In east Cobb, Julie Turner says she's also observed sales trends that indicate people are again heading out to restaurants, social gatherings and college game days, as well as taking vacations. Her shop, The Ivy Lane, sells clothing, home goods, jewelry and apparel. Jewelry and apparel have especially seen a surge, while pandemic sales trended toward what was the most comfortable, she said.

"During the pandemic, we had to change up our whole apparel situation, because people weren't going out and doing some of the things they were doing before," Turner said, adding that now she's seeing families prepare for their daughters to enter sorority life at school, family members and friends to get married and people buying beach supplies. "People are shifting back to some of their more normal apparel-buying patterns."

Home good sales also "really picked up" during the pandemic, Turner said, as consumers stayed home virtually around the clock.

"People were sitting at home and looking at their house and being like, 'You know, I need this, I need that,'" she said. "And then they were also making family dinners, so people were coming in and buying some of our big casserole pieces and stuff like that."

She said the store is looking forward to a normal fall, with college gamedays and a back-to-school sale from July 22 to July 25.

And there's one other section at the store that's making a comeback, she said.

"It's interesting, we also have a lot more baby demand now," Turner said, with a chuckle. "We've actually added back a whole big baby section, because we've had more of a demand for some baby products."

What's driving the change?

Sharon Mason, president and CEO of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, told the MDJ she has observed, in conversation and work with member businesses, many of the same changes local businesses are seeing.

Mason said as many workers leave Zoom meetings behind, they're having to ditch the last 18 months' norm of pajama pants on bottom and collared shirt on top to a full work wardrobe.

But, she said, across Cobb, many employers are also giving their workers more flexibility to dress down.

"I think it's very positive for employers," Mason said.

Overall, traffic at local shops is climbing, especially as most businesses report they'll have their employees fully back to work by around September, and the variety of offerings is widening with the changing trends, she said.

And, Mason added, she hopes Cobb Countians will remember to shop local and support the retail businesses that were hard-hit in the peak of the pandemic.

Thomas Beusse, executive director of the Marietta-based Georgia Retail Association, echoed much of Mason's sentiment.

Buesse said clothing stores were among the retail sectors that were hurt the most by the pandemic's chilling effects on shopping.

"Folks weren't going to the office, there weren't weddings, there weren't funerals — all the events of life that folks generally (attend) ... they just weren't buying the clothing that they normally would," he said.

But in the past couple months, as more people have gotten vaccinated and more pandemic restrictions have been lifted, Buesse said "we're seeing the express of that pent-up demand."

"Folks are going out and buying clothes to go back to the office, and if you're like me, I have a lot of suits that I really like that hung up in the closet, and they shrunk," he said.

Categories of clothing seeing the most new sales include work clothes, he said, but also children's clothing, resort and vacation wear, fragrances and cosmetics to go with the fresh looks.

Also interesting to note, Buesse said, is that men are shopping in greater numbers than they typically would.

Things are looking up, he said, as shoppers become more comfortable going back to their normal routines. And for retailers and their advocates, like Buesse, "we're very, very happy to have that."

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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