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."