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Clothing stores have a major problem on their hands: Too many things

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Clothing stores have a major problem on their hands. They have too many things. And it comes at a time when many shoppers are tightening their budgets and wondering if they really need that new pair of gym shorts. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: If you've been to a clothing store lately, you might have noticed it - full racks, price cuts, promises of particularly good holiday sales.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Black Friday deals, Black Friday deals...

SELYUKH: This one's a JCPenney latest.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...And boots and coats and boots and coats.

SELYUKH: And actually, coats and shoes aren't even the biggest stars of this year's sell-off. It's kind of regular stuff. Brian Ehrig is with the consulting firm Kearney.

BRIAN EHRIG: We've really seen it across the board. We're talking tops, bottoms, sleepwear. All of those products are really seeing quite a glut.

SELYUKH: A glut of inventory, as in some big chains found themselves with extras - extra colors, extra sizes and styles. For instance, Levi's ended up with too many jeans, GAP with too many hoodies, Kohl's with fleece and pajamas.

CRISTINA FERNANDEZ: Like, Nike's been discounting shorts and T-shirts and sandals.

SELYUKH: Cristina Fernandez is an analyst at Telsey Advisory Group. She says Nike for a while was flagging inventory concerns but kind of, like, no big deal. And then this fall, the tone got much more urgent.

FERNANDEZ: They usually tend to downplay, I say, you know, when there's things to be concerned about. And they did not. So (laughter)...

SELYUKH: Nike executive Matt Friend told investors the biggest issue was clothes in the U.S. market.

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MATT FRIEND: We effectively have a few seasons landing in the marketplace at the same time.

SELYUKH: In any year, clothing stores do this tightrope act, trying to predict trends months in advance. And think back on recent pandemic years. First, in a blink of an eye, it was all stretchy pants, pajamas and house dresses. Clothing stores were empty, going bankrupt - then a shopping boom. Retailers hit the gas pedal, ordering more and more. Just as suddenly, travel and parties and the return to office changed everything again.

EHRIG: A lot of the things that people have been wearing over the last couple years are not the same things that they're wearing now.

SELYUKH: Through it all, shipments from Asia have seen lots of disruptions. Many stores worried about another mess and decided to take no chances on this holiday season. They've been ordering ahead even earlier than usual. And that's how you get the Nike problem with summer, fall and winter orders all kind of here at the same time, some too late, some too early. Add to all this rapid soaring inflation.

FERNANDEZ: It added to a confluence of events of, you know, Getting some inventory laid, orders that you didn't really need and then consumer demand slowing.

SELYUKH: Spending on clothes is expected to decline this holiday season. Inflation has hit clothes much less than other products. Prices are up about 4% compared to a year ago, actually falling for the past two months. Adam Davis works with retailers as a managing director at Wells Fargo. And he says stores are deciding what to do with their excess stockpile of clothes.

ADAM DAVIS: They could discount it and kind of lick their wounds and maybe buy less going into next year. They can pack away the inventory. And if it's evergreen, meaning it's a white T-shirt or whatever - kind of staple item. Or they can move it to a discount chain.

SELYUKH: Or all of the above, which in the end means probably widespread deals for the holidays. Whether people decide they actually want more clothes is a whole other thing. Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DENNIS BERRY AND STUART CROMBIE'S "BARGAINS GALORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh
Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.