Fashion Faux Pas-Stereotyping Older Consumers

For decades fashion retailers rode the Baby Boomer purchasing wave as they started, advanced and continue their careers. They were the first generation of educated women who fully intended to join the professional ranks, often putting off child-rearing to later in life or never at all. Consequently, they are the most-travelled, wealthiest and most independent women ever in the westernized world.  Retailers are always looking for unmet consumer demand and opportunities.  This large demographic still offers opportunity for companies that don’t fall in the trap of underestimating her, by addressing her with one broad brush.

There is unmet demand for age-appropriate, forward fashion for a 45+ contemporary customer.

There is unmet demand for age-appropriate, forward fashion for a 45+ contemporary customer.

This is the misconception. As all women age, they no longer want to show their figure and take fashion risks. They want cheaper quality and want to disappear into a decorative tunic. I won’t name names, but you all know the colorful, “soft” retailers that subscribe to a stereotypical formula and have hit a ceiling in an aging market. The customer for this type of merchandise is already well-served.

How could brands that target an older customer fail with a burgeoning aging female population? There are many lifestyle and niche markets in men and women of all ages from extremely conservative to fashion-obsessives. It is critical to understand the lifestyle and persona of the target audience and have realistic expectations of the demand.

Many 45+women still have great bodies, a sophisticated fashion sense and plenty of disposable income. They care about their appearance. Many customers don’t want to identify as old and reject the brands that imply it. The designers and retailers who subscribe to a one-size fits all image of this age group are having their matronly hat handed to them.

I know many stylish women in their 40-80’s, that won’t set foot in the well-known specialty stores and sites that target a “so-called” aging consumer with their floaty tops and frumpy pants. In fact, the softer the body, the more flattering structure becomes in a garment. Companies need to consider their specific target woman, values, taste, income and needs.

Of course, people’s bodies change as they age. All apparel companies in any category, have to target an age/body type for their consumer. They have to develop a standard fit, but not necessarily safe product to go with it. In some sense, the notion of a larger fit only for an aging population is becoming debatable, because of rising obesity rates in younger people raised on whipped caramel lattes.

There are fashion-forward contemporary brands such as Theory, Vince, Lululemon, Diane Von Furstenburg, AG, Joie to name a few, who are enjoying great success because they work for a wide range of body types that relate to their brand. Unfortunately the list is short. There is also a male boomer who wants stylish age appropriate contemporary merchandise. Brands like Hugo Boss, Theory, John Varvatos, Robert Graham, AG and Michael Kors are appealing to this ageless male contemporary customer. I believe the men’s business is experiencing robust sales because young men are adopting more dressed up looks for an edge in the job market, the major trend toward slimmer silhouettes and the 45+ customer who is fit, has money and doesn’t want to look old.

Fashion foward shoes & bags have been stand out sellers for all ages. (Valentino Rockstud Ballet Flat)

Fashion foward shoes & bags have been stand out sellers for all ages. (Valentino Rockstud Ballet Flat)

Why have shoes, bags, accessory and beauty products been the standouts categories for years? Partly because these are the democratic categories, in which all women can participate. There is a redundant oversupply of apparel in the market. Opportunity lies in forward, casual, flattering merchandise that accommodates an aging body. It may be a tad longer, less clingy and revealing, but maintain a serious sense of style, quality and sophistication. Simplicity is always in good taste. What is age-appropriate? Appropriateness, more than anything, is a flattering fit.

Some other posts you might enjoy:

Tough Retail: 7 Ways to Grow Your Consumer Brand

Why Fashion Brands Fail to Thrive

 

The Dix & Pond Blog, by Stephanie Bernier is the blog of  Dix & Pond Consulting, a Boston-based, company that consults on business strategy, trends, creative direction, brand experience, product development and merchandising. Clients include retailers, apparel, footwear & consumer companies.  CONTACT US TODAY! 

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Hubris Maximus – Ron Johnson and JCP

Unsurprisingly, Ron Johnson, the former Apple retail executive, has finally been dumped by the J.C. Penney board after 17 disastrous months, as CEO at the mid-tier department store. He took the Texas-based company from a profit in 2011 to a staggering loss in 2012.

William Ackman the activist hedge fund manager (who owns an 18% stake in the ailing JCP), pushed for Ron Johnson to take over the plodding retail behemoth and got his wish to huge fanfare. He touted Johnson, because of his success at Apple and stint at Target as the divine solution to turnaround JCP. No one doubted the need for an overhaul and Johnson provided a compelling sales pitch of a reimagined JCP.

Entrance to the Joe Fresh Department at JCP

Entrance to the Joe Fresh Department at JCP

Johnson was given free rein to continue living in California and play chess with the lives of thousands of employees, vendors and shareholders while disappointing loyal customers. He laid off thousands, stopped sales promotions and created slick Target-esque marketing before changing lack-luster product lines.

This was a classic case of  big-city-smarty-pants going to show those country bumpkins, how to run a better company. Johnson’s attitude was arrogance unchained and a sense of self-infallibility. This is a perfect case study in “Hubris Maximus” for the B-schools. Ackman imparted and granted supernatural powers on a big coastal ego that had no clue how to create and sell apparel and home products. Let face it, anyone can be a genius (pardon the pun he invented the “Genius Bar” in Apple stores) when you are selling the world’s most coveted products. Apple products will sell out of a shack, peddled on the street or at any ordinary retailer. He didn’t create the magic of Apple, he ran their stores.

A JCP turnaround requires more than making physically appealing stores (he succeeded with better visual merchandising); it is a product issue, reinvention of many private label brands and establishing meaningful creative partnerships that would inspire existing customers and attract new ones. There are a few bright lights, but for the most part the new products, like the revamped Liz Claiborne department, is nothing more than make-up on a very big corpse.

William Ackman isn’t the only guy to hire someone who breathes his same rarefied air. So many companies, only want to hire from their social circles, élite schools or MBA’s without regard to their actual credentials and cultural sensitivities to get the job done. They like smelling their own and like-minded perfume.

Better visual merchandising didn't substitute for the traffic driven by promotions.

Better visual merchandising didn’t substitute for the traffic driven by promotions.

The key to the JCP turnaround was respecting the desires of their loyal customers, a willingness to listen and learn before you shoot, testing before your roll out, building meaningful brands and inspiring and empowering your employees. Success was never going to happen with the blind ego of a mere mortal. Ackman made a fool’s bet and lost his shirt.

Dix&Pond is the blog of www.dixandpond.com Creative and strategic consulting for retail and wholesale apparel, shoe and consumer product companies. Follow me to get the latest posts

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