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The search for consumer demand during COVID-19

Pessimism is evident in today’s retail landscape, as more brands bow to the pressure of coronavirus. Fashion players across all segments not only need to solve supply chain disruptions, but they also face the biggest threat to consumerism – low demand.  

Expenditure has decreased significantly, as consumers prioritise essential items over clothes, jewellery and shoes. Fashion groups are estimating loss of sales, and retailers are frantically cancelling orders to mitigate risks, leaving brands with mounting stock with no avenue to clear.

But for most crises, there’s a lifecycle. First panic, then stabilisation and, finally, recovery. While the US and UK markets are in the midst of the panic stage, their eastern counterparts are seeing green shoots, a cautious sign of recovery. Consumption is on a steady rise in China, and sales programs in South Korea are up and running.

For global brands and retailers, it’s crucial to be prepared for every stage of a crisis. Consumer behaviour fluctuates according to the cycle, and more importantly, windows of opportunity will emerge across all segments.

The panic stage: Low consumer demand, but not gone

During this stage, uncertainty is at its highest, and industry leaders struggle to understand the complexities of the challenges ahead, which is why many resort to instinctive reactions, such as cancelling orders to preserve cash. However, despite the outbreak, consumer demand is not gone. Offering constant newness not only ensures an ongoing cashflow, but also keeps you ahead of the competition.

But this poses another problem: What is the consumer demand now? The answer lies in data.

According to Omnilytics, newness isn’t disrupted. Compared with the same period last year, March 2020’s new-in products in the US saw a spike, as well as an increase in the number of first-time discounted products.

Across fashion homepages, retailers are prioritising apparel suitable for remote working, an enforced order by global governments for social distancing. “Cosy” and “lounge” are common keywords, and the term “stay at home” had more than tripled by March 2020.

Modern minimalist brand COS has leveraged on the shift, as it has increased its offering of knitwear and sweats by 96 per cent in the last few months, compared with the same period last year.

On the other hand, some retailers – including Lafayette148 and Shopbop – are focusing on elevating loungewear, a style that’s both comfortable and professional, featuring loose silhouettes and cheeky prints.

The keyword “spring” has seen an uptick as well, an indication of continued newness, while “autumn” saw a rise among Australian brands and retailers such as The Iconic, SurfStitch and Ally.

The key takeaway here: Don’t hold off on newness. As loungewear continues to gain popularity and weekend wear becomes the new essential, brands should consider incorporating these trends as transitional designs in assortment planning. To trade effectively, Amanda Liu, Omnilytics’s associate director, also recommends implementing immediate measures to reforecast sales that include changes to the existing line sheets.

Will luxury start discounting?

For luxury players, the problem poses a different set of challenges. Historically, luxury brands do not resort to discounts in order to protect brand equity. But the market’s reliance on touch-and-feel to sell is proving to be disastrous, as coronavirus renders this obsolete.

When coronavirus first struck China, brands like Gucci and Moncler quickly rerouted stock to less impacted countries, such as the EU and the US. But as the virus shifts west, luxury players are bracing for impact. With no e-commerce sales channels to turn to, they’re running out of options.

At marketplace retailers – such as Farfetch, Net-a-Porter and Yoox – strategies for luxury brands differ. Omnilytics data shows that under global retailers, Dolce and Gabbana, Prada, Stella McCartney, Givenchy and Versace increased first-time discounts in February 2020, while others like Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Fendi and Burberry amped up newness instead.

On the upside, the landscape is starting to see green shoots in China, with Prada and Burberry set to participate in Tmall’s new luxury livestream.


The crisis will eventually stabilise, as it has in China. This is where sales will slowly begin to generate revenue once more, as brands and retailers respond to consumers’ immediate needs.

Study trend shifts

It’s of utmost importance that brands pay attention to trend shifts in the market. Consumers behave differently at every stage. At the stabilisation stage, consumers are much more open to spend on other products, aside from just the essentials.  

However, it’s important for brands to not go overboard – monitor the market closely and shift when necessary.

While knitwear and sweaters are uptrending, understanding the key styles is crucial. The bestsellers at ASOS (with the most size restocks) consisted of styles in core colours and basic designs. The same pattern emerged when analysing the bestsellers of the same subcategory for COS.

“Even when consumer confidence returns, the road to full recovery will take time. Keeping a tight assortment is recommended during this pivotal shift, and replacing trend-led items with transitional designs,” says Amelia Teh, Omnilytics’s head of business intelligence.  

The key takeaway here: Focus on expanding cross-seasonal products, and shave back on trend-led items for the time being. Those that have done their homework at this stage will reap the benefits in the last stage – recovery – as they’re well-positioned with the right products for pent-up consumerism.

Wholesale reinvented for luxury

Luxury, on the other hand, will see a new normal in the stabilisation phase. Wholesale will have a completely new outlook, as everything moves online to operate.  

Virtual showrooms, for example, have been a big hit among fashion buyers. Fashion showroom and buying agency DFO saw double the number of Chinese buyers (who would typically fly to Paris to shop) tune in. Eighty per cent of its sales targets were achieved, further affirming that buying digitally is not just entirely possible, but preferable.

Skmmp, a fashion supply chain platform that developed digital showrooms, has seen a boost in demand, approached by Bottega Veneta and Tod’s. Luxury brands’ reluctance to adopt technology, citing the importance of the touch-and-feel, had to be eradicated – and some buyers are embracing it. After all, with travelling out of the equation, the scope of their target audience expands tremendously.

Plan according to each stage

Even at the panic stage, there are still pockets of opportunities for the industry to capitalise on. The key here is to not just to plan well for the current stage you’re in, but also for the next.  

After stabilisation comes recovery, where everything returns to “normal”. However, brands and retailers will find themselves in an entirely new retail landscape, powered by digitisation and innovation.

Phung Yi Jun is the lead content editor at data platform Omnilytics. Yi Jun built her career as an independent fashion writer. Her previous work can be found in Retail Asia, Harper’s Bazaar and Female magazines.

This story first ran in Inside Retail Weekly. Given the current crisis, we have decided to unlock all premium content related to COVID-19. If you would like to support Inside Retail, please consider subscribing here.

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