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How the fashion industry can survive and thrive post-lockdown

By Max Wiggins, Insight and Innovation Lead at LAB Group

Back when the effects of the coronavirus pandemic first hit in March 2020, everyone seemed to expect the worst for both physical and online retail. Fast forward to 2021 and initial predictions for online retail could not have been more wrong. Propelled primarily by a surge in demand for makeup and jogging bottoms, online retailer Asos has seen its fortunes reverse, as it is expected to finish the financial year at roughly £4 billion in sales, with a pre-tax profit of £170 million.

Total retail sales worldwide rose by 23%, scoring a whopping 36% uptick in the UK alone. Asos sees customers’ focus on wellbeing as one of the reasons for its profit, with the number of returns reduced greatly due to lockdown restrictions also playing a key role.

Back at the tail end of the first nationwide lockdown in 2020, here at LAB, we undertook research to uncover customer sentiment in retail by analysing conversations from Twitter on the topic of ‘fashion.’ We compared social commentary from before and during the lockdown to reveal how the pandemic shifted people’s perceptions and expressions about fashion and fashion shopping. Our findings showed that trends and behaviours had shifted massively between January and June of 2020, changes that are likely to remain retail reality as we navigate the latest lockdown and beyond.

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With Lockdown 3.0 ongoing and likely to last for the majority of the first quarter of 2021, three things are certain:

  • Customer’s habits are breaking down and reforming
  • Brands and marketers can capitalise on this extremely rare opportunity to entice new customers
  • Understanding and responding to these changes in habits and sentiments are key to creating a loyal customer base

We dug a little deeper into retail and fashion to discover key findings that brands should consider, providing tips for incorporating these into their messaging strategy to show that they understand their audiences.

Customers want to feel safe 

Somewhat contrary to concerns about masks impacting footfall, we saw a significant over-indexation around safety. Historically, Trustpilot has been used to review services and products but now we’re seeing shops being rated on their Covid-19 measures.

Making people feel safe will undoubtedly improve customer and staff loyalty, while also helping to create brand advocates with the fringe benefit of enabling genuine word of mouth marketing via praise from people who are booming it across social media.

Fashion is seen as pointless when there’s nowhere to show it off

Fashion apathy was rife throughout the first lockdown. People were more likely to use the words ‘pointless’, ‘useless’ and ‘no point’ when tweeting about fashion during this time compared to before the pandemic began.

Brands will do well to curate content and push clothes that are less about presenting an image and more considered with the functional resonance of clothing. During the first lockdown, we found that people were more likely to mention ‘work clothes’ or ‘proper clothes’.

But some still can’t stop ordering…

It’s not all sour news, however. The phrase “stop ordering” was significantly over-indexed .

People clearly still need their shopping fix and retailers can capitalise on this by identifying the ‘can’t stop’ buyers. This means amplifying their voices and tapping into trends around personal safety with masks, the rise of athleisure wear for comfort, and concerns around fashion’s sustainability and ethics. 

Athleisure is no longer a guilty pleasure

On Twitter, the word ‘exercise’ in fashion contexts was more likely to be mentioned in lockdown than pre-lockdown.

It’s a no brainer to jump on the athleisure trend for exercise but brands can also play on the rise in athleisure wear for working at home and balancing comfort with style.

Sustainability and ethics hold a lot more weight to customer choices 

Mentions of ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘fast fashion’ were significantly more likely to be tweeted during the pandemic than before. In a fashion context, people were also more likely to use negative, unethical language (e.g. shame, evil, wrong, in trouble) halfway through the first lockdown.

People are reacting strongly to the levels of customer service that brands offer customers and staff during the pandemic. Although brands should always be doing the right thing, our research highlights that falling foul of this in the current climate can cause permanent financial damage with many customers stating they ‘will never’ return, as with the Boohoo pay scandal which coincided with Leicester’s lockdown.


In the middle of a pandemic, with heightened emotions and polarised views on how we should be living, working and socialising, it’s never been more important to get your tone right.

Brands have the unique opportunity to capitalise on changing behaviours and create loyal customers in the wake of a period where new habits are being formed. People will look to align with brands that reflect their value and tap into their sentiments. 

Crucially, a tailored approach is needed. Identifying the cultural shifts and purchasing triggers is going to be the key to unlocking revenue for fashion companies.

Max Wiggins is the insight and innovation lead at LAB Group.

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