I travel a lot, but I haven’t bought a new suitcase in about ten years. I’m sure I’m in good company, which is clearly a problem for luggage sellers. Luggage has historically been a sleepy market, but now it has become a growth business, and one of the most interesting accessories categories that we follow at NPD.
Consumers traveling in record numbers – according to the U.S. Travel Association, domestic and foreign airlines servicing the U.S. carried 965 billion passengers in 2017, up +3.4% from 2016. But, as I’ve noted in prior articles, they’ve also learned to appreciate and require function in many of the products they use daily, including bags and luggage. The popularity of travel and the desire for functional items that make travel easier has driven a six percent increase in luggage dollar sales during the 12 months ending May 2018, compared to a two percent decline in sales of bags.*
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the luggage growth over the past year is that almost 80 percent of the incremental dollars were generated online. Online luggage sales grew 20 percent last year, on top of 15 percent growth the year before, making it the fastest growing accessories category online for both years.* Brands and retailers are leveraging their websites and social media to promote travel, as well the features and benefits of their products, and doing so in great detail. (I can’t get enough of the Instagram videos that show in time-lapse fashion where to place every item you could possibly bring with you.) Ebags, the number seven luggage retailer overall, and number two online,* has a Travel Center with a Luggage Buying Guide, as well as travel guides and tips from its Ambassadors.
A number of online luggage start-ups have also emerged, all with great stories to tell, claiming they’ve designed the perfect carry-on. Although they have driven innovation and newness in the category, it hasn’t been all rosy for these new digitally native luggage start-ups. Two of the more prominent entrants, which focused on their smart-technologies like device charging, weight measurement, and bag tracking, have folded due to airline restrictions and confusion surrounding built-in lithium-ion batteries. And recently, the New York Times’ Wirecutter review site suggested that outfitting non-smart luggage with a few tech accessories was a more cost-effective and hassle-free option than buying a smart carry-on.**
Despite the boom in travel and consumers’ interest in functional products (two phenomena which are likely to continue), luggage will remain a low purchase frequency category over the long-term. However, continued innovation will help to shorten the purchase cycle, as will marketing strategies that target new generations of travelers. The most important thing that brands and retailers need to remember is that they aren’t just selling suitcases – they are selling the travel experience and products that enhance that experience. They’ll need to expand their product lines, within reason, to incorporate complementary products, like travel accessories, travel-oriented footwear, and even an experiential or service component like travel recommendations and trip planning assistance. Away, a travel upstart, is still in the game because they recognize that they are in the travel business, not the luggage business. Rather than highlighting a feature or item, Away’s messaging focuses on how their products can make being away easier.
As we all know, traveling is stressful. Brands and retailers that aim to make it a little less so will be able to sustain a healthy business in the long run. In fact, I’m sold – time for a new carry-on.
*The NPD Group/Consumer Tracking Service, 12 ME May ‘18