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Economy Squeezes Mainstream Moms

Buffeted by the economic storm, the mainstream woman isn't carrying on as usual.

Buffeted by the economic storm, the mainstream woman isn’t carrying on as usual.

This story first appeared in the July 9, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

With gas and food prices increasing, tight credit, job cuts and eroding home equity, moderate and better women’s sportswear customers — most often middle-age, middle-income mothers — are trying to figure out how to rebalance their families’ budgets. Their own clothing wants often fall to the bottom of the list.

While this customer hasn’t given up shopping entirely, she’s almost certainly cut her budget and is forgoing replacing basics. What’s selling are items that balance novelty — details that set an item apart from what she already owns — and versatility that allows her to wear it beyond one season and for multiple purposes, either to work and for an evening out.

“The mainstream woman has pulled back and readjusted her spending habits,” said Brad Stephens, a retail analyst for Morgan Keegan & Co. Inc. “She’s spending money on goods that are differentiated. She doesn’t need the third or fourth white blouse. She’s not going from spending $200 a year to zero — she going to $140. She’s buying something special, maybe two items at $70 instead of four items at $50.”

Analysts said that this woman often is either trading down or waiting longer until products are on clearance — none of which is good news for a market segment that as a whole has had trouble squeaking out margins for several years.

Although Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has gained market share as customers opt for rock-bottom prices and one-stop shopping, other midtier retailers are feeling the heat. J.C. Penney Co. Inc. said it would scale back its expansion plans after first-quarter profits fell almost 50 percent, and Kohl’s Corp.’s bottom line slid 27 percent. Macy’s Inc. also reported significant first-quarter losses. Most retailers have indicated they don’t foresee significant improvement until 2010.