- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2007

NEW YORK

Beth Greenwald and Shelly Solomon-Turner are hot targets for clothing stores and, like many baby boomers, they’re frustrated by what’s on the racks.

Women like Miss Greenwald and Miss Solomon-Turner are at the peak of their earning power, yet stores have found that selling them clothes isn’t a sure bet. Their tastes are hard to define and retailers are repeatedly trying and missing the target.

Miss Greenwald, 50, and Miss Solomon-Turner, 60, share the same frustrations. They don’t understand why most stores don’t have a clue that while their bodies may be aging, their spirits are not.

“I am not in denial, but I also don’t have the AARP attitude,” said Miss Greenwald, a real estate executive. “I won’t go to a store that focuses on older people.” She just snapped up a pair of red platform shoes and flaunts her toned figure by wearing slim-fitting clothes that graze right above her knee.

Miss Solomon-Turner, who prefers black leggings, agrees.

“I keep an eye on the trends. I want to be in fashion,” said the co-owner of a public relations company. “But I don’t want to wear miniskirts.”

Miss Greenwald, a Manhattan resident, spends $25,000 a year shopping for little-known designer names at boutiques. Miss Solomon-Turner, of St. Louis, spends about $200 a month on clothing and is waking up to department stores like Macy’s.

Over the past two years, a bevy of retailers have unleashed new retail concepts aimed at the over 35-age group, but their confusion about what makes women like Miss Solomon-Turner and Miss Greenwald tick have led to missed sales targets, store closings and merchandise overhauls.

Gap Inc. is shuttering Forth & Towne, a specialty-store chain it started 18 months ago to cater to women 35 and older. Late last year, children’s clothing retailer Gymboree announced it was closing Janeville, which sold casual clothing to boomers; the company had hoped to create a 400-store chain. And teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters Inc. is reworking women’s fashions at Martin + Osa, its new store aimed at the 25-to-40 age group, after sales were disappointing.

Stores are making a mistake in segregating boomers, said Candace Corlett, principal at WSL Strategic Retail, a retail consultancy.

“The bodies may change, but the spirit is a lot slower to change,” she said. “When you move into your 50s, you don’t become less trendy. You may adjust because you have a different body, but it doesn’t mean you abandon the looks you love.”

With stores short on clothes for them, women ages 35 to 54 spent $32.3 billion in the 12 months ended February, according to NPD Group Inc., a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market-research firm. That’s up a meager 0.6 percent compared with a year ago, the weakest gain in five years, said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD.

Even once high-flying Chico’s FAS Inc., which pioneered the retail concept for selling to boomers, has seen its sales stall last year. Chico’s same-store sales, or sales at stores opened a year, averaged a modest 2.2 percent increase during its fiscal 2006 year; in 2005, the average was 14.1 percent. Chico’s is now refreshing its selections, which executives acknowledged had become too stale in light of increased competition.

Chico’s also operates Soma, a lingerie chain for boomers, and White House/Black Market, which is aimed at a younger end of the boomer spectrum. The average age of the White House/Black Market’s customer is 42, while the average age of Chico’s customer is about 52.

“Women are dynamic creatures. A 50-year-old woman is even more dynamic,” Mr. Cohen said. “You cannot put the components of what makes a 50-year-old in a box. They have so many interests and points of difference. They are trying to feel younger than ever. There are so many dynamics at work.”

Retailers need to pick a lifestyle and “stop thinking about age,” Mr. Cohen said. He noted Chico’s, known for its simple sizing system and customer service, hit a snag because it lost that focus.

Surprisingly, department stores — which had suffered as boomers defected to specialty stores like Chico’s — are starting to see their fortunes reverse in the wake of industry consolidation.

At a Bear Stearns retail conference in February, Charles Kleman, chief financial officer at Chico’s, told analysts that department stores have become a bigger threat, particularly Macy’s. Federated Department Stores Inc. transformed Macy’s into a national department store chain as it consolidated its recent acquisition of May Department Store Co.

“The department stores have certainly gotten stronger over the last year. Is that a long-term trend? I don’t really know that,” Mr. Kleman told investors.

Jim Sluzewski, a spokesman at Federated, said that Macy’s philosophy isn’t driven by demographics, but by lifestyle. But he believes that the company’s increased offerings in exclusive brands like O Oscar by designer Oscar de la Renta, has helped it connect with boomer women.

“Women are busier than ever,” Mr. Sluzewski said. At department stores, they “have a choice of brands that meet their needs.”

Miss Solomon-Turner, who had been a loyal shopper at Chico’s, has been recently turned on by improved offerings at Macy’s. “I am loving Macy’s,” she said.

But don’t count on Miss Greenwald to shop at department stores. She prefers smaller stores like Lyd, a local boutique, that are more intimate. Miss Greenwald recently picked up a violet dress at Lyd, where owner Mia Gonzalez helps her shop.

“I’m my own stylist, but I like her viewpoint,” she said.


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