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Nobody needs an extra coat': Apparel sector braces for another year of no splurging

Amidst an unusually mild winter, a frosty atmosphere pervades the Canadian retail sphere, signaling a challenging period ahead for apparel companies. The holiday season, typically marked by enthusiastic splurging, saw a dampening effect due to various factors, setting the stage for a cautious and challenging year in the retail sector.

Sandrine Devillard, leading McKinsey and Co.'s retail practice, reveals insights from consumer research indicating that Canadians are not eagerly lining up for apparel purchases. The reluctance to spend stems from a combination of soaring prices, high interest rates, layoffs, and the ongoing struggle to recover from pandemic-induced debt. In this frugal climate, Canadians prioritize essential expenditures such as food and reclaiming pandemic-deprived pastimes like travel or entertainment over discretionary purchases like clothing.

Devillard emphasizes a shift in consumer preferences, noting that when Canadians do indulge, it's more likely to be in experiences rather than on non-essential items like an extra coat. This mindset creates a volatile scenario for the apparel sector, with McKinsey predicting a modest year-over-year retail sales growth ranging between two and four percent in 2024. This is a stark contrast to the double-digit growth witnessed in some markets during 2021.

Even the traditionally resilient luxury market is expected to experience a slowdown, with McKinsey forecasting sales growth to range between three and five percent, down from five to seven percent in the previous year. The outlook is clouded by uncertainty, as revealed in a survey of 435 fashion industry executives, where the prevailing sentiment is one of unpredictability.

Greg Hicks, CEO of Canadian Tire Corp., attributes a 68 percent drop in the company's fourth-quarter profit to factors like rising interest rates, stubborn inflation impacting discretionary spend, and unfavorable weather. The challenges persist, with credit card data indicating fierce competition among clothing retailers.

To navigate these challenges, 69 percent of surveyed executives plan to raise prices in 2024, compared to 58 percent the previous year. Luxury brand Canada Goose Holdings Inc. may be among those opting for price hikes, as President Carrie Baker suggests there's room for the brand at much higher price points.

Lululemon Athletica Inc.'s CEO, Calvin McDonald, acknowledges the dynamics of a more promotionally driven market and urges resistance to such trends. The company, known for its premium athleisure wear, avoids using "sale language" during promotional events like Black Friday.

However, despite efforts to maintain margins by resisting heavy discounts, the retail landscape remains challenging. RBC economist Carrie Freestone notes a consumer "holiday hangover," with shoppers tightening their purse strings to cope with December bills, anticipating a dormant first quarter and largely flat retail activity throughout the year.

Amidst these challenges, McKinsey's research suggests a silver lining for certain retailers. Luxury merchandise such as jewelry, watches, and leather goods may enjoy sustained demand as perceived valuable assets in economic uncertainties. Similarly, companies catering to pandemic-driven exercise and outdoor habits may see a boost in sales.

In conclusion, the Canadian retail landscape faces a challenging year marked by cautious consumer spending, price hikes, and industry-wide uncertainty. While traditional apparel sectors struggle, those embracing innovation, sustainability, and direct communication with customers stand a better chance of weathering the storm and enticing consumer spending.