Men’s underwear indicator points to recovering economy

During economic downturns, retail sales may slow or even grind to a halt. But the latest data suggests men are buying the bare essentials.

While men’s apparel sales were largely flat in 2012, rising just 1 percent, sales of both socks and underwear saw large improvements — sock sales grew by 12 percent and underwear by 13 percent, a study by marketing and consumer research group NPD finds. Such investments, analysts say, could be the next economic bellwether.

“With the economy improving, it must be the right time for men to get rid of all that holey underwear,” founder Edgar Dworsky said.

The sales growth in these wardrobe staples is a good sign is because these items can usually be worn long after their prime.

“Men are updating the basics of their wardrobe,” says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD.

“Some men’s underwear may be so worn out that they have no choice but to replace it — or to go commando,” Vicki Morwitz, a professor of marketing at New York University told Market Watch. “For men who don’t care so much about underwear, during lean times, they probably made do with what they had.”

Other people suggest that these purchases could be related to confidence — men gain more confidence as the economy picks up.

“When men start to gain confidence, they do go out more and date more,” Z. John Zhang, professor of marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested. Market Watch notes the increase in online dating, an industry that has ballooned into a $1.2 billion enterprise.

There are mixed reports on how the rest of the apparel industry fared throughout 2012, though retail has been slowly climbing back since the recession.

“Post-recession, we are told the economy is improving and that people are spending again,” consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier says. “The first to go — items like men’s underwear — is often the first back on the shopping list.”

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