In recent years, as more middle-age women have tried to dress more youthfully, retailers have been flummoxed about how to respond. Most have floundered in their bid to attract those who don't want to dress like either their daughters or their mothers.
The clothes that were pitched to the 40-plus set barely evolved, and the hotter styles threatened to leave many looking downright embarrassed. In their zeal to lure big-spending teens and twentysomethings, many stores seemed to forget that many Baby Boomer women favor clothes that blend the traditional and the stylish.
Now, with middle-age customers deserting them for youthfully focused clothiers — or giving up shopping altogether — stores have been fighting back. They're trying, belatedly, to offer hipper and more youthful apparel without alienating those women who prefer more classic clothing.
The stores' success has been fitful at best. Saks Fifth Avenue's attempt to aim young fell flat a few years ago. Two favorite midlife brands largely went away: Liz Claiborne shuttered Sigrid Olsen and is turning Dana Buchman into a store brand for Kohl's so it can focus on its more cutting-edge labels, including Juicy Couture and Lucky Brand jeans. Talbots, Chico's and Ann Taylor have seen sales steadily erode, too.
Sure, hip stores such as H&M and Forever 21 have managed to sell to young women and occasionally, their moms. But many Baby Boomers have felt left out. What's a forty- or fiftysomething woman to do if she isn't ready to shop at Coldwater Creek with her own mother but feels too mature for spaghetti straps and miniskirts? In her new book, Drinking Problems at the Fountain of Youth, Beth Teitell, 46, says she rarely shops because there's nothing right for her to wear.
"There's no Forever 41 or 51," she notes dryly.
One of the strategic blunders that both department and some specialty stores made, retail experts say, was to write off Baby Boomer women for too long. That was true even though these women typically have the desire to shop and the money to spend — for something they like. Teens and twentysomething women do spend much of their disposable income on apparel. But their mothers and other older female shoppers have more money and aren't as fickle or as hard hit by gas prices, says retail strategist Michelle Bogan.
"They've come to hate shopping because there's nothing great that's out there," Bogan says. Department stores are "making a big mistake by backing off too heavily from that middle-age woman."
A lesson for Bloomingdale's
Bloomingdale's learned its lesson two years ago, Vice Chairman Frank Doroff says, when middle-age women complained that the clothes designed for them were "too frumpy, and the contemporary clothes wouldn't fit them." The retailer added two departments, Quotation and Portfolio, that have become among its most popular.
"I didn't say, 'I don't want to sell clothes to these women,' " says Doroff, who's been with Bloomingdale's for 17 years. "The apparel market got out of tune with what the women wanted."
Liz Sweney, J.C. Penney's executive vice president of women's apparel, says its research has also shown that women in recent years were "unhappy with the way department stores were going. They were going too young or too old."
Penney has responded by modernizing and adding new brands. This month, it's updating its 23-year-old Worthington career clothing line with better-fitting and more versatile offerings that can better make the leap from office to after hours.
Middle-age women, Sweney says, want to be "stylish and in fashion" without resorting to revealing or overly trendy apparel.
Still, it can be far more profitable — and fun — for department stores to embrace fast-changing, youthful styles, others say. Retail consultant Ken Nisch says stores shouldn't be blamed "for going where the action is."
"The Catch-22 is that when people dress older or dress their age, they have very little motivation to replace what's in their closets," says Nisch, chairman of the brand and store design firm JGA. "They don't worry about wearing the same thing they wore last Friday night."
It's also more difficult to please more mature customers, Nisch says. Personalized service that caters to those who expect consistently first-rate salesmanship is "harder to execute than changing the apparel six or seven times a year."
A challenge for Talbots' CEO
Talbots CEO Trudy Sullivan, 58, is trying to solve this problem, for her stores and for middle-age women everywhere. Starting this month, Talbots' clothes are acquiring a new look and better fabrics. There are more form-fitting dresses and skirts and fewer high-waisted pants.
Teitell, who writes in her book that she'd never succumb to Talbots' "sensible everything," agreed to pose in the new clothes and says she's heartened that "somebody's trying to dress us."
But Talbots is trying to do more than that. When it unveiled its fall and holiday fashions in New York this summer, the biggest news might have been not that it was selling fairly trendy clothing but that it was showing fashion at all. The outfits on display were far more contemporary than any the struggling retailer had sold since anyone could remember. And it was the first time in about a decade that Talbots had touted its latest line to the fashion press.
The retailer didn't have much to brag about before. Sales at Talbots were down each quarter for the past two years. And second-quarter results this year hit a new low, sinking 12% from the same quarter last year. That's a poor showing even in this sluggish retail environment, when a mere 2% increase is cause for celebration. (Same-store sales at Chico's, meanwhile, were off 19% in the second quarter; Ann Taylor's sales growth has been negative for the past several quarters and fell nearly 11% last quarter.)
Though some other retailers can point to the sour economy for their troubles, Talbots had mainly itself to blame, say consumers and retail experts. The retailer fell so far off the fashion mark in recent years that it had became the poster child for the frustrations of middle-age female shoppers and the stores that had traditionally served them.
"I've never seen anything like it in my career," says Jennifer Black, who's been a retail stock analyst for more than 25 years. "They were in the dark ages."
'Dowdy is dead'
Even Sullivan concedes that Talbots' styles had become too "frumpy." When the retailer polled its customers, women 50 and older said they thought of the store as being more for their mothers. Now, Sullivan says, "Dowdy is dead."
"I hope this will start a trend to convince other retailers and other department store brands to invest in this consumer again," says Bogan, of retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates. "There's some real pent-up demand."
Leslie Fox, 43, of New Albany, Ohio, used to shop at Talbots but felt its styles had become too conservative. She was always surprised that no matter how low the waist got on pants at other stores, Talbots' pants never seemed to budge. Of Talbots' new selections, she'd now consider buying several dresses and at least one suit.
Fox thinks Chico's apparel seems even more unflattering than what Talbots used to be and perceives Ann Taylor as overemphasizing formal styles that most working women no longer need.
"Things have changed in the workplace now," she says. "More environments are more casual."
That's something Ann Taylor is trying to address with the recent addition of more casual clothing, which analyst Black says is a "wise choice … as lifestyle seems to be such a driving force in apparel choices."
"We are highly focused on evolving and modernizing the Ann Taylor brand," CEO Kay Krill said last month.
Still, Black and other analysts say that new merchandise coming into stores last month was being marked down almost as fast as it was being stocked.
Chico's, for its part, has acknowledged it wasn't updating its apparel often enough. It told analysts earlier this year that it was working to improve its styles and the fit of its clothing, especially denim. Black says Chico's is "still a work in progress" but thinks the fall merchandise is somewhat improved.
No turning back
Talbots' Sullivan knows she may alienate some traditional buyers with more contemporary fashions. Of the hundreds of e-mails she's received since she made her e-mail address public, about 30% were complaints. They included laments that there were no corduroy jumpers and flannel nightgowns to be found. But Sullivan says there's no turning back to styles that just last year included a sweater with a Santa on skis.
That sweater alone, she says with a laugh, was almost enough to kill the deals she cut with some of the designers and marketers she lured to Talbots.
While Talbots and some other stores have sometimes been viewed as skewing too old, those who shop too young are committing an offense that Teitell calls "DUI": dressing under the influence — of a teenage daughter.
Shelley Seff, a Baltimore fitness director, says that in her house, it's the other way around.
"I tend to dress trendy even when going out socially but have found it confusing for me because, at 58, the Oprah fashion experts say, 'Do not dress like your daughter,' " she says. "Yet my 181/2-year-old will borrow my clothes, so I would probably give the (O, The Oprah magazine) editors something to talk about."
Daughter teaches Mom a lesson
Yet Seff's daughter, Jamie, says she once hid her mother's hot pink Juicy Couture sweat suit because it didn't seem age appropriate and notes that her mom was wearing both pieces together, which was simply too much.
In a recent survey by the marketing company Frank About Women of nearly 1,600 women ages 35 to 74, 48% said many retailers seem to cater to younger shoppers and ignore others. But the women's replies to two other questions show why any store's marketing approach may seem self-contradictory: 40% of women said they had no interest in clothes that make them look younger. Yet, 42% said they'd go to great lengths to look younger.
No matter how conflicted 35-plus women are about their age, Bogan warns, retailers risk driving away loyal shoppers if they neglect their desire for updated apparel each season.
Though middle-age consumers are more financially cautious right now than younger or older shoppers are, that will pass, says Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail.
"Once this group has a little of the financial pressure off their backs, they're certainly willing to spend again," Liebmann says. Also, "They've got long memories. It's a big group, and you don't want to lose them."
Frank About Women's Jennifer Ganshirt says her firm's research shows shoppers tend to fall into five personality categories, ranging from "mission" shoppers to "feel-good" customers. As women age, they tend to move toward mission shopping: They want their experiences to be quick and easy, and they're willing to spend if they like the options. If not, they won't shop.
That describes Teitell, who works at home and still isn't sure she's found her solution. She sighs that even Talbots' new look isn't quite right for her.
"Maybe there's no garment that can solve my problem, so maybe I'm looking for Talbots to do too much," Teitell says. "I don't want to look young. But I do want to look youthful."