Americans are emerging from their homes. They’re heading back to school and work after months of lockdown and limited activities. Many are also updating their wardrobes from sweatpants and pajamas to trousers and tops. For jeans giant Levi Strauss & Co., the change means re-thinking both methods and materials.
Last year, pandemic stay-at-home orders devastated businesses. Stores closed, people lost jobs, and sales plummeted. Shuttered shops and out-of-work consumers meant bankruptcy for many clothing companies, including Brooks Brothers, Chico’s, J. Crew, J.C. Penney, and others.
Not so with Levi’s. The business has adapted before—numerous times since its founding in 1853. Recent challenges weren’t viewed as obstacles. CEO Chip Bergh saw the 2020 health crisis as an opportunity. He invested “where we knew consumers were going to be going during the pandemic”—at home and online.
Company officials knew they needed to enhance consumer experiences. To that end, Levi’s unveiled a product suggestion engine on its website, created a new mobile app, introduced contactless returns, and enabled self-checkout at stores. These and other crisis-driven tech features have been popular with both pandemic and post-pandemic consumers.
Ten years ago, Levi’s sold only about 21% of its products directly to consumers. “Last year,” Bergh says, “we finished the year at almost 40%” straight-to-consumer sales. Bergh hopes to increase that percentage going forward. He says selling sans go-between is “important to us because we’re able to have that direct connection with the consumer.”
Another change for Levi’s was selling products virtually. Sellers moved from displaying actual clothing in person to presenting digital designs online. Bergh admits the change would’ve happened with or without the pandemic. But he believes the crisis sped up the process.
The company also recognized that comfy is here to stay. So Levi’s launched a line of cozy loungewear made of “eco-aware” cotton. The line sold out within weeks.
But the picture isn’t all rosy. Outside the United States, pandemic clusters remain. The Levi’s global market makes up over 50% of the corporation’s $4.45 billion in yearly sales. In addition, the company faces labor shortages, wage hike demands, and rising cotton prices.
Today, Levi’s sells products in more than 100 countries and operates 1,000 stores. Bergh continues to focus on the strategies that helped Levi’s emerge stronger from the pandemic. “We’re seeing a denim resurgence as more people are going out,” he says.
There’s another reason for the sales uptick: People changed sizes during lockdown. Some got bigger, some smaller. Either way, Bergh says over “25% of consumers have a new size.” Turns out, almost everyone needs new jeans.