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."