Consumers itching for> new jeans, pricey dress shirts or other cotton-heavy goods might want to pay especially close attention to this year s holiday sales. Although the rising cost of cotton hasn t hit shoppers yet, clothing companies have said prices will start climbing as early as January.
Bad weather in cotton-producing regions of India and China, and flooding in Pakistan, resulted in poor harvests this season, driving cotton prices up nearly 80% since the summer. So far, most clothing makers haven t passed that cost increase along to consumers. But in recent weeks, the parent companies of a variety of brands including retail chain Bon-Ton, Jones New York, Hanes, premium denim producer 7 For All Mankind and outdoor clothing maker North Face have said they expect to raise their prices by up to 10% in 2011. At this point, says Randy Allen, an associate dean for The Johnson School at Cornell University, they can t afford not to.
But consumers can hedge against rising prices at least for now by taking advantage of bumper store sales. Apparel isn t usually a hot seller during the holiday season, at least compared with other gift categories, says Jeff Green, an independent retail consultant. So retailers are discounting their clothing inventory to make it look as attractive as toys, electronics and other popular gifts. They re really trying to get rid of this stuff, he says.
If you want to future-proof your clothing budget, first browse your wardrobe for pieces that are likely to need replacing in upcoming months. It they re more than 50% cotton, shop the sales for replacements before the end of the year. It could even be worth stocking up on a favorite piece: In coming seasons, rising cotton costs may push designers to use more synthetic blends as an alternative to increasing product cost, a switch that could change the comfort, durability or dye colors, says Rachel Weingarten, a personal stylist in New York City. The prices are excellent, and the styles aren t going to change that much over the next year, she says.
Of course, end-of-season clearances can still trump rising prices and some styles won t have as much longevity. Here s a look at what to buy now and what to wait for.
Lots of denim pairs contain some spandex for a bit of stretch, but brands as varied as Lee ($20 and higher per pair) and 7 for All Mankind (up to $345) still use 98% to 99% cotton. Darker dyes and classic fits such as boot-cut are the most likely to stay in style, Weingarten says. Through Nov. 7, Lucky Brand jeans is offering free shipping and returns on jeans, plus an extra 40% off sale items (already discounted up to 50%).
Most shirts at mainstream chains are cotton blends designed to be more wrinkle resistant, says Michelle Madhok, the chief executive of fashion site SheFinds. But many, especially those from high-end brands such as Thomas Pink and Brooks Brothers, are 100% cotton. Jos. A. Bank (JOSB)
Socks and underwear
Everybody needs socks, Weingarten says. Look for multipacks, which tend to be a better deal, especially on sale. Through Nov. 3, Kohl's currently offers Adidas ClimaLite sports socks for 25% off. A three pack goes for $9, while a six-pack is $12. Style has only a minimal impact on underthings, so stock up on cotton undershirts and other dainties while prices are low. Victoria s Secret offers up to 75% off in its clearance section, with cotton underwear priced at $3.99 instead of the regular $7.50.
Organic commands a premium, and that means when regular cotton prices go up, that premium price will too, likely by the spring, Madhok says. Gaiam currently has its 100% organic cotton tanks on sale for $13, down from $22.
Until the weather gets warm, retailers don t have any incentive to cut prices on T-shirts. So wait until next summer. That's when stores tend to keep prices on T-shirts low, says Madhock, if only to use them as loss leaders. Better yet, wait for next fall s clearance sales of summer stock. Even with the cotton-driven price increase, those deals are still likely to be better than paying full price right now.
Bedding and bath
Retailers use January white sales to clear out their remaining fall and winter stock, Allen says. Because these sheets, towels and other home goods are already on store shelves, they won t be immediately affected by 2011 price increases. Don t wait too long, though because late spring and summer stock hitting shelves are likely to be priced higher.
As manufacturers look for alternatives to cotton, they re considering more sustainable options such as bamboo and hemp, Madhok says. Such fibers have traditionally been more expensive because of low demand, but they aren t that expensive to produce and hold up better than other blended options. Next fall, you ll find more eco-friendly blends cotton blended with bamboo, hemp and other sustainable options and at better prices.