Home News Back to Basics: An Ode to Yesteryear and the Products People Are Buying Again

Back to Basics: An Ode to Yesteryear and the Products People Are Buying Again

Things come back into style eventually. Across the fields of music, fashion, television, and design, our society nods to decades past with the resurgence of old trends. Many describe this fashion cycle as one that follows a “40-year-rule”, where nostalgia primarily occurs for an era 40 years prior. Some acknowledge a shorter 20-year cycle, and others say waves of nostalgia don’t occur on a fixed schedule.

The U.S. has looked back with fondness on many time periods. Take our recent fascination with the Mad Men era and the skinny ties that accompanied it. Or the celebration of knee-high socks, high-waisted pants, and all things 80s during American Apparel’s ascent in the early 2000s. Look no further than your local, nearly-gentrified urban neighborhood to find Generations X, Y, and Z saluting your grandpa’s style with accessories like suspenders, flannel, horn-rimmed frames, and other Urban Outfitters throwbacks.

We took a look at purchase behavior across our tracked industries to see what nostalgic trends we’re observing in 2017. From fashion and footwear, to food, technology, toys, automotive, office supplies, beauty, and books, see what products are back with a vengeance (for now at least).

The 90s Are Knocking

Nostalgia is “a glue that reinforces bonds of solidarity and shared experience,” whether good or bad. If you’re a Millennial, you may have been mildly perplexed to finally have lived long enough to see 20-year-old trends from early childhood creep back onto the map. Take the recent sequel to the 1987 American sitcom Full House—Fuller House, now approaching its third season. While this may be difficult to come to terms with, the market has spoken: everything from the 90s and early 00s is cool again.

Our Chief Industry Analyst, Marshal Cohen, said denim has been on the rebound over the past year, with women’s and men’s jeans sales growing 4 percent in 2016. “Denim manufacturers and retailers are realizing the importance of striking a balance between giving consumers the features they know and love, and introducing them to some new elements they didn’t know they needed,” added Cohen.

High-waisted “mom” jeans are in vogue in the U.S., as evidenced by our Consumer Tracking Service data. Apparel Industry Analyst Maria Rugolo observed women’s low-rise jeans lost share in the 12 months ending in May 2017, while natural-waisted (higher) jeans gained share. They are now the top-selling style, representing half the U.S. market in women’s jean sales. Maria explained that it’s not just about bringing back retro styles, but bringing them back with a twist to make them new again. Brands like Levi’s do this well by playing up vintage and even reusing old denim to appeal to socially conscious Millennials.

Another 90s revival—Baywatch, the movie—has brought with it one-piece bathing suits, which is back in style. Women’s one-piece suit sales increased in percentage by double digits in the U.S., surpassing two-piece suits in share in the 12 months ending in May 2017.

And do you remember those Steve Madden Slinky Sandals? Our accessories and footwear analyst Beth Goldstein told us they’re back. As are platforms, mules, and slides. Walk any shoe department and you’ll find plentiful platform sneakers, sandals, and boots.

Converse—once sported during more rebellious, formative years—have been going strong for some time now, introducing remade classics to stay relevant to a wide audience of consumers. The brand had double-digit growth in the 12 months ending in May 2015, and continued to grow over the past year (albeit at a slower rate), shown in our Retail Tracking Service data. The same goes for Birkenstocks, which have been back for a few years now, performing well and available in many colors.

The choker necklace, a fashion staple of the Clueless era (1995), has cycled back into style. The same goes for crop tops and slip dresses, which younger Millennial and Gen Z women have been sporting for the past several years. And Beth Goldstein vouched that the dreaded fanny pack came back a few years ago, more than doubling in sales in the 12 months ending in May 2016, and growing 22 percent in the 12 months ending in May 2017, evidenced in our Retail Tracking Service data. Even some high-end fashion designers are jumping on board.

Retro Kicks

Our sports industry analyst Matt Powell has been talking about the trend of classic/retro sport footwear for the past few years. While performance running, basketball, hiking, and walking shoes have been trending negatively in the U.S., the sportswear categories with a heritage in performance are excelling. Retro basketball shoes have been hot for more than a decade, and retro running and tennis shoes are now growing quickly, too. What’s ironic, Matt explained, is that these shoes aren’t truly intended for high performance, but rather to make a fashion statement. In April 2017, the top-grossing sneaker in the U.S. was a retro model, the Air Jordan 11 Low

When it comes to retro sneakers, it’s not simply about carrying the same old shoe again, since modern shoppers are used to lighter and more breathable shoes than were worn decades prior. “In order to capture the customer, brands cannot simply resurrect shoes from the archives; today’s consumers demand that the products they wear be modern,” advised Matt. Recently, some brands have mixed retro uppers and put them on performance outsoles to reach consumers who want to look fashionable when they’re doing heavy exercise. 

When asked how long this retro footwear trend can last, Matt said, “While the fashion cycles are becoming shorter, given how many footwear products are available to re-release, this trend can hold on for a while. Combined with the public’s lack of interest in performance footwear, I think we will be in this cycle for some time to come.”

What’s Old Is New Again . . . Then Old Again (in Tech)

Can technology be retro? The phrase “retro technology” sounds a bit like an oxymoron.  Our Technology Industry Analyst, Stephen Baker, said, “Retro style is really not a thing in tech. Occasionally someone will make something as a niche/novelty item that mimics the look of an old-time product.”

From digital cameras that mimic film cameras, to cassette tapes recently made cooler in 13 Reasons Why, technology companies are launching modern throwbacks that tug at consumers’ heartstrings. Nokia recently announced it is bringing back its historic 3310 phone and Nokia 515 phone, and Samsung launched a smartphone-flip phone hybrid that’s reminiscent of the beloved Motorola Razr phone of the early 00s (should you miss the simpler days of delightfully snapping shut your neon pink phone). "But those are just small-scale niche initiatives to get a little PR, and don’t lead to any true trends,” warned Stephen.  

There are, however, a few exceptions to this rule. Kodak announced the re-launch of its classic Super 8 video camera at CES 2016, and modern Polaroid cameras can be a big hit at parties and weddings, allowing users to instantly share photos in a retro and funky way. Sales data shows instant print cameras are back on the map, having experienced healthy growth last year. U.S dollar sales of instant print cameras increased 148 percent in the 12 months ending September 2016, and also showed healthy growth in Holiday 2016 compared to 2015. Many of these modern cameras include new technologies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth capability, and embedded photo filters, fueling double-digit growth for camera and film sales in the first five months of 2017.

What retro models have truly taken off, with promise of staying around longer? Stephen Baker said brands that have taken an old, more analog technology and made it relevant in a digital world have proven to be moderately successful. It’s all about updating products with new technology that mimics an old technology. Take modern turntables, for example. This four-legged turntable turns Millennials’ heads because it also serves as a piece of statement furniture. A consumer may own a handful of records and listen to almost all of his or her music on Spotify, but the fact that a turntable looks retro and cool is enough to spark interest. The same goes for this blue, portable turntable.

The proof is in the data: turntables experienced 16 percent growth in dollars sales and 23 percent growth in unit sales in the 12 months ending February 2017 compared to one year ago. “Growth in the past year has been fueled by both casual listeners, as well as audio enthusiasts,” noted Ben Arnold, consumer electronics industry analyst at NPD. But it’s not as if consumers are running out and buying 1960s era Steepletone record players like the ones their parents used. Ben explained the turntable market has been revitalized by “a mixture of expanding colorways and form factors that appeal to design-focused shoppers, as well as updated features like Bluetooth to keep up with the wider trend toward connectivity in audio.”

Half of turntables sold in the 12 months ending February 2017 were Bluetooth-capable (up from 18 percent the same period a year ago), and 39 percent of units sold were equipped to digitize records into audio files. People also like their turntables colorful: the majority (two-thirds) of turntables sold are in a color other than black.

Ben also called out the original Nintendo Entertainment System console as a solid piece of technology—an exception to the retro technology oxymoron. Nintendo recently released the NES Classic, and  Video Games Industry Analyst Mat Piscatella said it was an instant hit with immediate sell-outs, high Ebay prices, and people lining up for new shipment arrivals at GameStop. In other vintage gaming news, Mat added that Microsoft recently announced the Xbox Game Pass, a Netflix-style subscription service for Xbox One owners that will allow people to play older Xbox One and Xbox 360 games in an all-you-can-eat fashion. Sony has a similar streaming option called PS Now for older PS3 games. If the NES release is any indication, these throwbacks are primed for success.

Old-School Play

“Nostalgia has been prevalent in the toys industry for as long as I can remember,” said Toys Industry Analyst Juli Lennett. “Every year we see old brands come back to life. This year Beyblade, Voltron, Madballs, and Teddy Ruxpin are some of the ones looking to make a comeback—although I think Beyblade and Madballs have the most potential for success.”

Juli explained that nostalgia in the toy industry has been driven mostly by entertainment properties this year. "Wonder Woman the movie had a great opening weekend at the box office, and though the original TV show was not accompanied by toy licensing in the late 1970s, today’s movie brings with it new toys, which I expect to sell well. Ben 10, a show on Cartoon Network, just recently re-launched in April, reaching nearly 41 million U.S. viewers across platforms including linear, mobile, and VOD. Though the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise may not seem very old, it just came out with its fifth movie in May—15 years after the original film came out in 2003. Cars released its first movie 11 years ago, its second 6 years ago, and its third movie installment just hit theatres in June. We expect all of these franchises to bring with them big toy sales this year.”

When asked if she noticed any resurgence in classic games like Trivial Pursuit or certain Disney characters, Juli clarified that the toys industry has a number of “evergreen” properties that never truly go out of style. Included among this list are Barbie, Hot Wheels, Star Wars, Disney Princess, and Nerf. “There are also evergreen games that remain popular like UNO, Monopoly, Operation, Jenga, Bop It, Simon, and Life. While they may experience ups and downs, they always show up in the top 10 or top 20 year after year,” explained Juli.

Dear Diary, I Miss the Good Old Days

Amid today’s frenzied, tech-driven America, we’ve observed demand for products that bring consumers back to simpler times. In the automotive industry, this has played out in DIY restoration of older car models. Automotive Industry Analyst Nathan Shipley credits a boom in the vintage restoring car business to a healthy economy that has allowed consumers to have some fun again  collecting and restoring  old cars. “People want to drive classic too, with classic cars making a comeback this year,” added Nathan.

Several classic name plates have plans to return to the automotive world in the years to come. The Ford Ranger compact pickup truck had a 29-year run in the U.S. through 2011 and now the automaker is producing an upgraded version to be re-introduced in the U.S. market for 2019 to attract nostalgic drivers who want a classic—yet modernized—model. Fiat-Chrysler is producing a new Jeep Wrangler Pickup, the first Jeep pickup available since the early ‘90s, as well as a Jeep Grand Wagoneer—an ode to the 1984, boxy fake-wood clad classic. And older, retired brands are back on the scene, like Cord, which built its last model in 1937. Eighty years later, the brand has plans to come back to life, sparking interest across automotive enthusiasts. 

In the office supplies industry, nostalgia for simpler times has played out in DIY arts and crafts activity. Office Supplies Industry Analyst Leen Nsouli has spoken at length about the adult coloring trend. Nothing says nostalgia like bringing it back to first grade with some good old coloring. The American public cannot get enough of colored pencil sets and coloring pages, which have had healthy sales and growth over the past few years, a reflection of consumers’ craving for non-digital activities that allow them to chill out.

Remember the days of secret diaries, locks, and recording your deepest desires? The mere act of being nostalgic and reflecting on the past is back, and it has created a market for journaling and memory keeping. “Planners are no longer just a means to plot the future, but also a way to preserve and protect memories. Consumers are branching out from digital solutions and looking to paper solutions for organizing their lives and memories, using everything from planners, to bullet journals, to stickers, and self-stick notes,” explained Leen Nsouli. And do you remember the Milky Pen craze of the early 00s, when kids would cover darker pages of paper with a rainbow of pastel colors? Americans are turning to gel pens again for their writing and crafting needs; total retail sales of gel pens grew by 18 percent for the 52 weeks ending in May 2017.

When Americans aren’t writing about the past, they’re reading from the past. Consumers’ literary tastes are a bit nostalgic these days. NPD Books data showed 17 of the top 20 selling in children’s books of 2016 were from the backlist (anything published more than 12 months ago). Included on this list are classics like Green Eggs and Ham; Goodnight Moon; Brown Bear, Brown Bear; Oh, the Places You’ll Go; and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, as well as newer classics like Wonder. On the adult reading front, classics as a category increased 10 percent year to date (as of May 28, 2017), driven by the resurgence of George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose sales have more than tripled year to date compared to the same period in 2016. Year-to-date sales for Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale have also increased—more than tenfold from 2016 sales levels, fueled by the Hulu show. It seems America’s tastes have increased for dystopian books about totalitarian regimes.

Unicorns in Vogue

Speaking of journaling and coloring—let’s talk about Lisa Frank. If you’re a Millennial who attended grade school in the 90s, perhaps you were lucky enough to have sported Lisa Frank rainbow-clad notebooks, folders, pencils, and stickers. Those were the days when one’s greatest concern was choosing between Lisa Frank’s dolphin and cheetah stationary set.

Recently, cruelty-free beauty brand Glamour Dolls and Lisa Frank have teamed up to create Lisa Frank makeup, expected to hit shelves in September 2017. Such collaboration is clever—hitting the socially conscious Millennial with nostalgia for the rainbow unicorns of two decades past. If their Kickstarter campaign is any indication, consumer demand is high already.

Lisa Frank makeup isn’t the only beauty-office supplies mash-up around. Crayola and Clinique partnered up to launch a limited-edition of 10 Chubby Stick Moisturizing Lip Colour Balms, mimicking the shape of actual crayons. "To us, the point is that when you look at one, it makes you smile. So, the obvious connection to that happy feeling is with a box of crayons," said Janet Pardo, Clinique’s senior vice president for product development. "It brings you back to a carefree time in life–when you didn't have stress, because you were a child." The colors even match classic Crayola crayon names near and dear to our hearts—Brick Red, Melon, and Wild Strawberry to name a few—to “expand the experience and joy of coloring to be a part of everyday personal beauty”.

Clarins also recently came out with the Clarins 4-Colour All-in-One Pen, a throwback to those “clicky,” retractable pens that enabled you to write in ROYGBIV in grade school. Only difference is that instead of drawing over your body with ink, it allows users to apply three different shades of eye liner, plus a versatile lip liner—playing into a fondness for this 90s staple.

Americans have nostalgia for classic scents as well, said beauty industry analyst Kissura Craft. Scentiments, our suite of consumer insights and tools for the U.S. fragrance industry, allowed us to take a deep dive on this trend. People want to smell classic: the Scentiments Fragrance Journey 2017  survey found nearly one quarter of men and women ranked having a classic fragrance as very important, compared to only 17 percent who ranked a trendy fragrance as very important.

From Microwaves to Kitchen Aids

What old-school food is back on the menu? 


Food Consumption Industry Analyst David Portalatin said breakfast today is beginning to look a lot like it did for our grandparents. Move over avocado toast, and make room for eggs. “Eggs are on the rise (what cholesterol?): while we still value convenience in the morning (e.g. the breakfast sandwich) more young consumers are breaking out the skillet and cracking some eggs. Eggs, pancakes, waffles, French toast, and potatoes are all growing at breakfast.”

David explained how Americans are preparing more meals at home again. In 2006, we found 1,081 meals per capita were prepared and eaten in home or carried from home. In 2016, that number increased to 1,118. Since so many people can’t cook, meal kit startups (think: Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Plated, and Purple Carrot) that make it faster and easier to prepare meals at home are thriving. While overall use is still small, larger food companies are seeing the potential and getting involved; Campbell’s just purchased a meal kit delivery service.

We’re doing slightly more traditional cooking, too. “We now use the oven 11 times more per year than we did a decade ago. In 1988, the microwave surpassed the traditional oven in usage, and that trend continued until 2009, when the average American used the microwave on 151 more occasions per year than the traditional oven. We still microwave more, but the pendulum is swinging slowly in the other direction: the gap for microwaving is down to only 112 occasions more,” David said.

More Americans in the kitchen means a greater need for cooking tools. So what retro appliances are we seeing in America’s cupboard? Home industry analyst Joe Derochowski said sales of retro classics like Instapots (pressure-cookers), stand mixers, and cast iron cookware are up—and consumers can’t get enough of them in 1950s pastel colors.

Everything Old Is New Again

Looking back on the past lets us recall the good (while editing out the bad) and romanticize eras simpler and more mysterious than our own. Whether an old Nike Air model made with modern, breathable material or a mint green electric mixer updated with splatter-free, high-power engineering, products that inject an old concept with newly added value will win over consumers’ heartstrings. How will you offer new and better products that tap into this American fondness for looking back on days gone by?

These were just some of our nostalgia-related retail insights across the fashion, footwear, food, technology, toys, office supplies, beauty, and books industries. For other retail trends and insights, or to discover how you can better measure performance for your categories, retailers, regions, or territories, visit our LinkedIn page, contact your NPD account representative, call 866-444-1411, or email contactnpd@npd.com.

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