First it was bedroom slippers, sold by the pallet last year during lockdown. Then sheets and comfy pillows. As the weather warmed, patio furniture flew off the blocks, followed by the outdoor recreation gear: kayaks and, when the temperatures turned back to winter, snowshoes.
Consumers have been on a pandemic buying binge for stuff that provided comfort in a time of fear and alienation. And L.L.Bean has the receipts to prove it: All those boots and bedsheets helped the company’s revenue jump by 5 percent last year, to $1.59 billion. All told, L.L.Bean added a million customers in 2020.
Now, like thousands of other retailers around the country, the famed Maine outfitter is trying to guess what we’ll splurge on next. It’s doubling the number of bike mechanics on staff in Freeport and has crews hurriedly building Adirondack chairs. It’s restocking adventure duffels, backpacks, and travel clothing and preparing for another record-breaking year of water and winter sports sales.
“In 2020, we reached an incredible — a much broader demographic — than we typically reach as people were exposed to our brand in lots of new and different ways,” chief executive Stephen Smith said in late March. He hopes those purchases will translate into a lifestyle change that begets even more business, since “once you’ve hiked a coastline or paddled a kayak next to seals,” the couch seems much less appealing, he said.
The big question for many retailers is whether they can correctly predict what consumers will flock to next, and then keep enough inventory in stock during a period of prolonged disruption in global supply chains.
“How are we preparing for this? It’s hold on for dear life,” said Jeff Enright, the head of supply chain and logistics for Ocean State Job Lot. “We started selling above-ground pools in December. We started selling gazebos in January. We started selling air conditioners in the beginning of March.”
The signs are all there: Vaccination rates are rising, retailers are hiring, and signs of normalcy, such as sports games with fans and concert announcements, are sprouting with the warmer weather. A combination of pent-up consumer demand and sharp increases in savings for some and federal stimulus payments for others will fuel an unparalleled spending spree, said economist Eric Hilt.
“This recession has been very different from historical patterns. It’s highly unusual for households to come out of a recession with an enormous accumulation of savings,” said Hilt, an economics professor at Wellesley College. The conditions of the past year, he said — a fall in spending in high-ticket categories like travel and hospitality coupled with a big increase in some household incomes — has resulted in “this giant accumulation of savings that’s historically unprecedented.”
Already, there are signs the boom is underway.
At L.L.Bean, the demand for bicycles, kayaks, roof racks, and canoes is already outpacing that of last year. Camping and hiking categories are up as much as 144 percent, while bathing suit sales in March were up 500 percent above a year ago. All-Weather furniture sales are up an eye-popping 754 percent. The company is anticipating sales in some categories, such as tents, footwear and outdoor apparel, to grow by double digits and has begun stockpiling high-demand products.
“We have good line of sight of what [sales] look like sort of through May and June,” Smith said. “It’s much harder to predict the fall, and where discretionary income will flow.”
L.L.Bean is also trying to learn from the earlier part of the pandemic, when it was hit with a lengthy and unexpected surge that at one point, for example, made it hard to simultaneously keep up with orders for stand-up paddleboards and snowshoes.
The retailer uses what’s known in the trade as a chase strategy in its supply chain, waiting for evidence of consumer buying before increasing inventory of a product. So, for example, it plans to buy fabric and keep it in reserve until numbers on products start to spike, then have the manufacturers kick into high gear.
In the factories that make L.L.Bean’s outdoor furniture, the larger daytime crews are making hot-ticket items such as Adirondack chairs, while smaller night crews ready slightly less-popular items like patio tables. L.L.Bean is even having furniture and canoe manufacturers ship directly to customers to cut down on delivery times.
Similar machinations are happening throughout the retail industry.
At Ocean State Job Lot, there is there’s no way to model what the months ahead will look like, Enright said. The company saw unprecedented sales growth in 2020, and all Enright is certain of for this year is that the surge will be even bigger — a “massive challenge” to keep up with.
Goods are selling as fast as they hit the floor, prompting Enright to work directly with manufacturers to secure hot-ticket items. A year ago, Ocean State increased its orders for pools by 25 percent; this year it has raised that amount another 30 percent. But shipping containers are tied up throughout the international supply chain and are costing as much as five times more to move, cutting deep into the stores’ margins.
“The boats and containers aren’t in the right place,” Enright said. “We’re having to work across our buying group to prioritize what gets put on a container. As much as we’d like to receive everything, we know it’s not going to be possible.”
Enright said last year was a mad dash for products, as people cleared shelves of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Now he’s trying to be mindful of what will matter to customers most. “We actually think that customers are going to be more thoughtful about what they buy,” he said.
So the scramble is on. TJX Cos. is planning to acquire even more inventory, reflecting a “wider range of product categories,” the off-price retailer said in its fourth-quarter earnings report. Shuttered storefronts also pose an opportunity for expansion, TJX said, and it anticipates that as customers return to their offices and begin traveling again, the appeal of their “treasure hunt” shopping experience will resume.
And the housewares e-commerce giant Wayfair was one of the biggest local winners in the pandemic: Revenue in 2020 grew 55 percent year-over-year to $14 billion. It could have been an even bigger year, if not for labor shortages and supply chain bottlenecks, chief executive Niraj Shah said on the Boston company’s fourth-quarter earnings call.
Already, Wayfair is seeing sustained demand for outdoor furniture and firepits, added Liza Lefkowski, vice president of global brand, creative, and curated merchandising. The company is working with suppliers “with an added sense of urgency,” given the events of the past year.
“We are trying to fill our stock in to make up for the unexpected growth,” she said.
It’s still far from clear what the new normal will look like for retailers. In 2020, overall consumer retail sales jumped 6.7 percent, despite pandemic restrictions. For this year, the National Retail Federation is forecasting as much as an 8.2 percent increase. Many economists suspect that people will choose to spend wildly — above pre-pandemic levels — to make up for a year of forced restraint.
“There will be extraordinary spending,” said Jack Kleinhenz, the federation’s chief economist. “I don’t know how else to put it.”