Face Masks: Are They Keeping Retail Clothing Afloat?


Is there any part of modern life that coronavirus has not impacted? Probably not. It has certainly disrupted the travel, hospitality, and entertainment industries. It has also impacted the way people spend disposable income. Look at retail clothing and you see an interesting trend.

Some of the best-known brands in the U.S. have suffered significant downturns this year. Even in the midst of stronger online sales, brick-and-mortar sales have fallen through the floor. It could be that face masks are the one thing keeping some brands afloat. For example, just look at the Gap Group.

Millions in Mask Sales

The Gap Group owns a number of well-known brands including Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Athleta – in addition to the Gap brand itself. The group has apparently sold $130 million worth of face masks since the start of the pandemic. It is currently ranked number one by Google for mask style guides, according to Diginomica’s Stuart Lauchlan.

Sales of $130 million on a single product would be good news under normal circumstances. In this case however, brisk mask sales have a significant trade-off. Store sales across all Gap brands are down by 48%. Overall sales are down by 18% despite a 95% increase in online sales.

Across individual brands, the picture is not pretty. The Gap brand has experienced a 55% decrease in store sales, a 75% increase in online sales, and an overall decrease of 28%. Banana Republic has lost 52% overall. Despite strong face mask sales, the group has been losing all year. If it were not for the masks, the picture at the Gap Group would look much bleaker.

Spending Habits Are Changing

One possible explanation for falling clothing sales is that people are changing their spending habits. According to a Business Insider report published in May, millennials are spending less and saving more. Any excess they do have is being put toward housing, investments, and eliminating student debt.

As it turns out, millennials are also a big demographic for the retail clothing industry. They are more likely than older consumers to routinely add new items to their wardrobes. If they are not spending as much money these days, it would stand to reason that clothing brands would take a hit in sales revenue.

The advantage they have with face masks is the belief that they are not optional. Brands like Gap have taken advantage of this. But it is not just retail clothing brands. Alsco, the company that pioneered uniform rental more than 100 years ago, began selling 3-ply woven cloth masks within a few weeks of the pandemic’s onset.

Face masks are almost considered a necessity right now. As such, it would be surprising if brands did not see robust masks sales. But one must face the reality that mask sales might be propping up a retail industry on the verge of collapse.

A New View of Clothing

It could be that the coronavirus pandemic has altered the way we think of clothing. Rather than obsessing over the latest styles, consumers might start viewing clothing as more functional than anything else. And as long as their clothes are not riddled with rips and tears, they will not bother replacing them.

If that’s the case, retail clothing is about to undergo a significant overhaul. Whether or not that is good depends on your perspective. The one thing we do know is that the fashion industry is one of the most wasteful. If the current climate changes that by forcing a reset, reducing waste would be a good thing. Face masks can prop up the industry in the meantime.