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Surprise! People Actually Are Spending More Money on Fewer Goods

Recent reports suggest that quality is finally beating out quantity when it comes to buying clothes and shoes.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself sitting next to two middle-aged female tourists on the subway. I began eavesdropping on their conversation, as one does, and it quickly turned to groceries. “I’ve been trying to stop by the store every couple of days to just buy what I need for a few meals,” one said to the other. “You know, the way they shop in Europe.”

It was an interesting exchange to overhear, given that I spend half my life researching and writing about how and why people shop. Surely, one woman does not make a movement. But what her comment did indicate is that some people -- not just the finite group I deal with everyday -- are thinking differently about how they consume.

And that carries over to clothing and accessories. While I still find brands who loudly trumpet the “responsible economy” a bit inauthentic, there’s no denying that their basic message -- to buy fewer, higher-quality items -- is one that is starting to mean something to shoppers. An industry source recently directed me to some data culled from a January report by the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), stating that people are truly buying less and buying better. While Americans bought fewer units of clothing in 2012, the amount they spent on those units increased by 4.8 percent to $282.2 billion. And while pairs of shoes bought decreased slightly by 0.6 percent to 2.3 million, the cost of those shoes increased 4.9 percent to a record $72.4 billion. It was the second year in a row that units went down, but prices went up. And while 2013 data isn’t yet available, experts are confident that the trend will continue.

To be clear, this isn’t all about consumer sentiment. Raw materials are pricier, as are supply chain costs and labor. (Not to mention that manufacturing in America -- which typically makes things even more expensive -- has increased significantly, up 8.5 percent for apparel and 9 percent for footwear.) But some of it does have to do with a change in shopping attitudes.

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“Before the recession, in 2006 and 2007, one could argue that people were buying just because they could,” says Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at AAFA. “People are more cautious with their money now. They want to spend it on something that they know is going to last.” The categories where shoppers are willing to pony up include coats, boots and, yes, handbags. (In 2011, unit sales of handbags decreased by 6 percent, yet dollar sales increased by 5.7 percent.) But while an uncertain economy has something to do with it, there’s also the fact since we bought so much stuff in the mid-aughts many of us simply don’t have room for more. (Which also helps to explain the proliferation of online consignment stores.) 

That’s not to say fast fashion is hurting -- at least not yet. While we might be buying fewer, more expensive goods, we still buy a lot. Americans, on average, bought 62 garments in 2012. “Fast fashion is not going by the wayside,” says Herman. It does, however, have some competition.

Photo: iStock