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Department stores retool fashion lines in a bid to win baby boomers

Posted: Friday, May 09, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) When Ann Pinkerton was in her 20s and 30s, she was a slave to the latest fashions, from bellbottoms to micro mini skirts. Now, in her early 50s, Pinkerton wants to look stylish, but has trouble finding clothes that fit, even though her size has crept up only to an 8.

It's very depressing trying on stuff and not having it fit. It just reminds you of growing older,'' the Manhattan resident said.

Pinkerton said she particularly has problems at department stores, which have focused over the past five years on selling to teens. But the department stores are slowly waking up to the needs of boomers who want the latest looks with a more forgiving fit.

Macy's, which believes it has worked hard to win over the teen customer, is aiming to hook their mothers by stocking up on such lines as Kenneth Cole and DKNY City and expanding its private label line, INC.

These clothes, according to Joe Denofrio, Macy's senior vice president, serve the needs of customers who want the looks of such high fashion lines as Betsey Johnson and ABS by Allen Schwartz.

Women, even when they maintain their weight, find their shapes change as they get older, and so they need clothes that fit better than styles cut for teens and young adults. They're also looking for fashions that are more sophisticated, not full of gimmicky details like pockets on cargo pants.

May Department Stores Co. has spruced up its largest private label line, Valerie Stevens, to make it more fashion-forward and versatile for the 35-to-45-age group. The company is also making an effort to merchandise outfits together, according to Gene S. Kahn, chairman and chief executive officer. That will help time-starved boomers shop faster, he said.

Apparel maker Liz Claiborne is trying to better appeal to its boomer customers with an ad campaign that focuses on their diverse lifestyles rather than just showing a model in clothes. The campaign features model Vendela with her family and friends, in various situations, from having a picnic to cooking dinner.

Industry experts say catering to boomers is essential for the survival of department stores that have languished for years.

The boomer business is still considered secondary'' at department stores, said Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a consulting firm. The emphasis has been young consumers. There is still not enough of a fashion statement for boomers.''

In fact, Pinkerton, who no longer shops at department stores, said she buys clothes at Chico's, a nationwide apparel chain, as well as catalog companies like Newport News. She said she doesn't have time to weed through all the unwearable trends at department stores to find what she likes.

Catering to boomers will pay off for retailers. Compared with consumers in their teens and early 20s, middle-age shoppers tend to be more loyal to their stores. They're also at their peak earnings period, giving them more money to spend.

Still, major retailers need to come out with fashions that are compelling enough to make boomers spend on clothing these days, shoppers are more focused on other priorities such as their children's college tuition and their homes, said David Wolfe, creative director at the Doneger Group, a buying office in New York.

Customers ages 35 to 54 spent $44.2 billion in apparel last year, a 3.4 percent decline from the previous year. That compares with $20.8 billion spent by the 13-to-17 age group, a 3.7 percent decrease.

Sales of overall apparel declined 1.7 percent last year to $162.7 billion, according to NPD Inc., a research company in Port Washington, N.Y.

When boomers are buying clothing, they're not interested in hiding their bodies, according to Lois Joy Johnson, beauty and fashion director at More, a fashion magazine aimed at women over 40. The truth is we're 1/8the boomer generation 3/8 taking care of our bodies and working out,'' Johnson said.

She added, We all want to look like the stars,'' noting boomer role models like Meg Ryan, Madonna and Kim Cattrall. Despite the overall slump in retail sales, Chico's has been able to generate solid sales gains with clothes that have a relaxed style. Pat Murphy, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer of Chico's, attributed the company's success to apparel that is well proportioned and that has a simple sizing system.

But Macy's Denofrio believes Chico's is specialized, with one look, leaving plenty of room for department stores to serve boomers.

We're much more diverse,'' he said. He said Macy's expects to stock clothing from more apparel manufacturers, and answer boomers' concerns by improving sizing. He believes the retailer's ability to better serve boomers was sharpened with Macy's entry in Puerto Rico two years ago; there, the retailer found that many of its customers wore larger sizes and wanted trendy looks.

We learned so much,'' Denofrio said.



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