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I’ve finally done it. I had to. My shoulders couldn’t take it anymore. What major life change am I referring to? I made the switch from tote bag to backpack for work and travel. And it’s great. 

It took me a long time to find the right backpack – not too bulky, and something that wouldn’t make me look like I was heading to class instead of to the office. There actually isn’t a lot out there that fit the bill. With the exception of a few brands that are actively fusing fashion with function, most fashion backpacks can’t accommodate all that is needed for the workday (and beyond), which is what I attribute the seven percent backpack sales decline to during the three months ending February 2017. And, this decline happened despite the fact that we are seeing more backpacks in-store and on the street, from designer to mainstream.

First, I want to put the backpack sales decline into perspective. The overall bag category is having one of its toughest years in recent history. Dollar sales of women’s and unisex bags declined 18 percent in the three months ending February 2017, so the backpack segment outperformed the total bags business during this period. In addition, compared to two years ago, backpack sales are up 60 percent.

The more recent decline troubles me because I would expect the backpack category to be experiencing continued growth. Coming off of the strong growth last year, retailers bumped up their backpack assortments; the average number of items sold in stores where backpacks are carried grew 18 percent. This increased assortment did not lead to more sales, meaning the sales velocity per item (a measure of how fast an item sells) decreased. It’s not a good sign when more items are available but we see lower sales. This suggests that despite the fact that brands and retailers are giving us more backpack options, they might not be the right options.

I see the problem as a fashion vs. function disconnect. The major fashion bag brands have an opportunity to infuse more features, like convertible straps or room for a laptop, into their backpack styles, or risk losing their consumer. New brands are entering the market, and brands more traditionally focused on function (like athletic and luggage brands) are now upping their style game.  On a positive note, there are some leading indicators that the softness in this category might be reversed soon.  The Middle Atlantic and Pacific census divisions, two very important regions when it comes to fashion trends, are seeing an increase in velocity per item for fashion backpack styles – meaning these items are selling faster in the most recent 3 month time period than they did last year.   

Sure I’ll still tap into my handbag collection for other occasions, but for my commute and travel, I’m now hooked on the backpack. The industry needs to give consumers a reason to buy something new before the category can see bigger and better growth. This includes brands and retailers focusing on the features and benefits that busy consumers value. 

Source: The NPD Group/Retail Tracking Service, 3 months ending February 2017 – Fashion and Everyday/Lifestyle Backpacks; Better, Bridge, and Designer brand classifications


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