Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Older Navy or Ripened Banana Republic?

Forget about growing old gracefully--it is now all about growing up gracefully.

Still waiting for that Oshkosh B'Gosh store for senior citizens. Until then...

---

August 24, 2005

Gap's New Chain Store Aims at the Fashionably Mature Woman

By ERIC WILSON

WEST NYACK, N.Y., Aug. 23 - For the millions of American women over 35 who face the conundrum each morning of a closet full of clothes but nothing to wear, there is little solace to be found at the vast Palisades Center mall here. With nearly 300 stores and more than half of them aimed at teenage consumers, this temple of consumerism in Rockland County, about 25 miles north of Manhattan, is full of clothes, but for women of a certain age, many find little to buy.

"These stores are for skinny little girls," said Irene Giachetti, of New City, N.Y., as she was tugged at by her teenage son on a back-to-school shopping mission. "It's very difficult to find anything for me."

So it is with considerable interest in the retail industry that Gap Inc., the nation's largest chain of clothing stores, chose the Palisades Center to introduce a new chain yesterday aimed at that unwieldy and indefinable category known as grown-ups. These are customers who are past any longing for shrunken polo shirts and low-slung denim styles ubiquitous at youth-oriented stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, yet consider themselves too hip for conservative stores like Ann Taylor or Talbots, and too frugal to pursue the elitist designs that make up that minuscule slice of apparel known as high fashion.

The new chain, Forth & Towne - poetically sandwiched at the mall between branches of Forever 21 and Justice: Just for Girls - is aimed at a market that might be called the new forgotten woman. Even though women of the baby boom, now age 41 to 59, accounted for 39 percent of women's apparel purchases last year, shoppers who are much younger, 11 to 30, enjoy nearly five times the retail options, according to industry figures.

"Retailers have been looking for growth for the past several years, but frankly, they've been looking in all the wrong places," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of the NPD Group, a market research company. "Department stores had given up on this customer to chase after the youth market, and while 40 may be the new 20, these women want to dress differently."

Baby boomers spent $42.7 billion on apparel last year, compared with teenagers who spent $20 billion, Mr. Cohen said.

Sabrina Sanchez, 50, of Orange County, N.Y., who is trim, but not petite, complained that most stores aimed at women her age stocked clothes designed for larger women, based on national size averages. "I find that clothes are either too mature or too youthful, although Ann Taylor Loft might have a few things," she said. "But you don't want to look too matronly."

The new Forth & Towne stores - 4 more will be opened in malls in the Chicago area beginning next week, 5 more in 2006 and 20 in 2007 - represent the first of several retail spin-offs being developed by fashion companies to cater to older customers. Others include an unnamed project from American Eagle Outfitters and the Ruehl stores of Abercrombie & Fitch.

That trend is largely inspired by the success of Chico's, a rare example of a primarily mall-based retailer that has tapped into the boomer market, surpassing $1 billion in sales by catering to mature women with loose, colorful, easy-to-match separates.

Although baby boomers came of age in the Gap jean jackets and khaki pants, which the chain has sold since its founding in 1969, they have drifted away from the brand as they have aged. Susan Benedetto, 47, of Middletown, N.Y., who was shopping at the mall for school supplies at an Apple store for a son in college, said that she had bought only T-shirts from the Gap in recent seasons. "Everything is geared toward younger women," she said.

Gary Muto, a 17-year veteran of Gap, who was named president of the Forth & Towne brand in April, said in an interview that Gap holds 8 percent of the apparel market for shoppers under 35, compared with 3 percent for shoppers over 35. "They have the highest mean income and spend the most on apparel, and they are underserved," Mr. Muto said.

It is a generation that encompasses an expansive range of ages, body types and tastes, with perhaps the only common characteristic being that they are not typically driven by the same impulses as teenage consumers, the live-or-die pursuit of the latest trend. Forth & Towne is described by Gap executives as a destination for all women over 35: working women, soccer moms, grandmothers, suburbanites and city dwellers.

"These women come in all shapes and sizes," Mr. Muto said. "They want stylish clothes that are age appropriate; they want an easy shopping experience"

When research showed Gap executives that women over 35 cannot be easily categorized because of their eclectic tastes and lifestyles, the company came up with the idea of stocking its stores with four different brands, one in each corner, that address different customer profiles.

Career women who might shop at Ann Taylor or Banana Republic will find similar styles at the front of the 8,000-square-foot Forth & Towne, under the label Allegory, including $48 purple and pink merino wool sweaters and structured jackets, skirts and coats. A second label, Vocabulary, is more like Eileen Fisher and Chico's, with forgiving oversized knit sweaters and a chunky knit flecked oatmeal cardigan at $128.

More casual looks hang in the back of the store, under the name Gap Edition, based on the company's sportswear classics, including jeans and $98 cotton rain jackets in purple, pink and khaki. Prize, the trendiest label, includes a pleated black satin skirt with a grosgrain ribbon waistband, $78, several satin flounce skirts, an $88 plum velvet blazer and a range of lace-trimmed transparent tops.

Austyn Zung, senior vice president for design at Forth & Towne, who formerly worked for Oscar de la Renta, said that her target customers were so varied that she designed for different tastes, but with a common fit. Forth & Towne's biggest innovation is to scale its sizing based on a fit model who is a size 10, rather than the industry standard of 8. Its sizes range from 2 to 20, whereas Gap stocks only to size 16.

Margaret Mager, a managing director of Goldman Sachs, who toured the prototype store Tuesday during previews for retail analysts and the press, and is also a member of its target audience, said she was pleased with the selections.

"It is like four stores in one," Ms. Mager said. "Instead of trying to target too narrow a customer, what they've done is develop a store that has four different ideas that can work for any one customer, because no one is that narrow in what their needs are. "

Banc of America Securities issued a research report describing the Forth & Towne concept as novel, "but perhaps uneven."

"We think the collections are a little hit and miss and are likely to take a while to work out the kinks," the report continued. "Also, with 90 percent of the price points under $100 - in a store that includes outerwear and blazers - not everything may offer the quality the shopper expects."

Analysts also said that because of the slow introduction of the Gap's latest brand - in addition to Gap stores, the company owns Banana Republic and Old Navy - Forth & Towne will have little impact on the company's stock, which has fallen about 7 percent this year.

And as an indication of the degree of skepticism that some members of its target audience hold for the company's approach to mature consumers, a blogger in Chicago noted on April 21, the day Gap disclosed the name of its new chain, that Forth & Towne could be called F.A.T. for short.

"Let people think what they think," Mr. Muto said. "We believe we have an exciting, unique concept these women haven't seen before."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

<< Home