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Boomers Growing Fast But Fashion Steers Clear

NEW YORK — What are fashion labels loathe to do? Take aim at baby boomers as their primary marketing target, for one thing.<br><br>Despite the plentiful lip service they’ve paid to focusing on the affluent boomer — a consumer now 36-...

NEW YORK — What are fashion labels loathe to do? Take aim at baby boomers as their primary marketing target, for one thing.

This story first appeared in the October 9, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Despite the plentiful lip service they’ve paid to focusing on the affluent boomer — a consumer now 36- to 57-years-old who spends more on women’s apparel than any other age group — most fashion marketers are persistently targeting a twentysomething or teen customer with both their designs and advertising. It’s a reality that stands in sharp contrast to a growing number of other businesses, including food, fitness, cosmetics, personal care and pharmaceuticals.

In part, that’s because the fashion crowd continues to perceive young adults as being more exciting, energetic and sexy, and, as such, offering a more appealing image than the boomers. Two years into the new millennium the prevailing view among ad executives, brand marketers, and marketing researchers and consultants is that a youthful appeal is still fashion’s most effective sell.

It’s also a tactic built on the fundamental belief that American pop culture continues to be influenced mainly by its youth, and that therefore, Americans, bombarded by young imagery in the media, want to preserve their own youthfulness.

“Americans have a really young mind-set now — we’re obsessive about it,” remarked Sam Shahid, president and creative director of Shahid & Co., a fashion ad agency whose clients include Abercrombie & Fitch, Tse, Bali, Wonderbra, and Barely There. “There’s a health craze, the gyms are packed, more and more people are getting Botox injections and having cosmetic surgery, and both men and women are coloring their hair.”

Or, as Candace Corlett, principal partner at WSL Strategic Retail, observed: “We have an aversion to aging. No one wants to turn 35, pass 40. The only people who love birthday parties are teens turning 18 and people turning 80,” she continued. “We don’t see ages as life stages, we see them as an end; we don’t see older people as wise and learned.”

The irony is that while boomers are spending more than any other generation on apparel, including women’s clothing, as NPDFashionworld co-president Marshal Cohen, put it: “They are the most ignored segment in apparel retail and manufacturing.”

According to some observers, it’s a void that could soon come back to haunt many fashion players.

“A fool and his money will soon part, and I think the design community, on the fashion side, has no idea who their customer is,” charged C. Britt Beemer, founder and chairman, America’s Research Group, a consumer marketing consultant based in Charleston, S.C. “When you have female sticks out there — models 23 years old, wearing sizes 2 and 4 — the fashion business is not taking advantage of the opportunity they have.”

Beemer’s view that young models don’t speak to the fashion customer in her 40s and 50s was in the minority among more than a dozen sources — for now. However, most suggested that as boomers increasingly move north of 50, the generation will likely be underserved and underexploited by a marketing effort not aimed directly at it. Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are turning 50 each day, or seven per minute. About 38 percent of the U.S. population is currently 50 or older, and 41 million boomers are still due to turn 50. By comparison, Gen Y, or people ages 15-25, represent 19.2 percent of the population.

Thus, the issue for fashion manufacturers and retailers becomes: How are they to maximize growth if they ignore boomers in their marketing and design?

There are a number of companies targeting this segment already. Ellen Tracy was among several fashion brands cited by sources as making an overt and successful appeal to a more mature customer — and it does so with model Cindy Crawford, now in her mid-30s, who is perceived to have a timeless appeal, as are Isabella Rossellini, formerly featured in Eileen Fisher ads, and omnipresent Lauren Hutton. Other labels credited for fruitfully targeting a mature customer include St. John, Max Mara, Jones New York, Liz Claiborne, Ann Taylor, and Chico’s.

Then there’s Gap Inc. “Boomers are a group we overlooked the last few years, when we went younger and more trendy,” offered Gap Inc. spokeswoman Stacy MacLean. “Maybe teens aren’t shopping as much with us, since we launched the ‘For Every Generation campaign’ [and product], but we think the broad appeal is way more important.”

Data compiled for WWD by Port Washington-based market researcher NPDFashionworld shows that boomers snapped up 34.5 percent, or roughly 2.3 billion of the approximately 6.6 billion pieces of women’s apparel purchased by American consumers in 2001. In spending terms, this equaled 33.4 percent of the dollars spent on those items, or approximately $28.2 billion. They were followed by members of Gen Y, who bought about 2 billion units of women’s apparel, accounting for 31 percent of the category’s consumption last year. Gen Y’s spending on those items amounted to around $25.8 billion, or 31.6 percent of the dollars devoted to women’s wear in 2001. And at least for the under-18 part of Gen Y, apparel spending is likely done by parents, for the most part.

Despite reports of a sharp drop-off in apparel spending once people pass age 55, the gap between the over-56 population and Gen X, ages 26-36, in share of dollars spent on women’s apparel and pieces purchased, though statistically significant, fell in the low- to mid-single-digit range. For example, people over age 56 in 2001 spent around $14 billion on women’s clothing, or 16.6 percent of the dollars expended for the category, while Gen X spent about $16.3 billion, or 19.4 percent. Those expenditures resulted in purchases, by people 57-and-up, of approximately 1.1 billion pieces of apparel, or 15.1 percent of women’s wear bought last year, versus the 1.3 billion items bought by Gen X, which constituted a 19.4 percent share.

The phenomenon can be explained, in part, by the larger U.S. population share represented by those in their late 50s, compared with Gen Xers: 28.1 percent versus 17.7 percent, according to the Census Bureau. Also at work are differences in lifestyle and purchasing power. People 57 and older tend to wear dressier, more expensive clothes, and dress up more often than members of Gen X, even though those in their 50s dress more casually than their parents’ generation.

“How wise is it to cater to the 40-and-over crowd, who control between 60 and 70 percent of discretionary spending in North America?” posited Paco Underhill, managing director of consultant and market researcher Envirosell. “As a retailer, I’d be more worried about where I’m going to be in the next three years and less worried as to where a customer is going to be in seven years,” he replied, playing down the longevity of Gen Y that’s luring fashion marketers and looking toward the continuing boom in the 40-plus crowd.

Nonetheless, for a host of reasons, the fashion crowd remains willing to stake its future primarily on people in their mid-30s or younger, while often ignoring the boomer in the process. Some reasons cited by industry observers:

The complexities involved in mounting multigenerational ad campaigns.

The stereotypical thinking that is pervasive among many ad executives responsible for executing fashion campaigns, especially regarding the 50-plus consumer, whether those executives are Gen Xers or boomers.

The fallacies that persist about the style sensibilities of the 40-plus customer.

“Fashion folks often think that all women 40 and older wear are tracksuits or cutie-pie outfits. That they somehow go from hip huggers to spandex to crepe de Chine, and then drop off the fashion map to wear an elastic waistband on something,” Underhill groused.

While misperceptions abound regarding the reality of boomers’ apparel tastes, advertisers continue to favor a fantasy take in appealing to young adults and youths.

“There’s a lot of fear that if you include other ages in fashion ads, you will alienate a younger group of customers,” said Trey Laird, president and executive creative director at Laird & Co., whose clients include Gap and Donna Karan. “It’s a shame. A lot of it is also laziness, habit. The new D&G ads include a group of customers in a range of ages. Sometimes, this is more impactful than showing another skinny, 18-year-old girl in tight jeans.”

But if, in catering to young adults and teens, fashion advertisers have fallen into what Brand Keys president Robert Passikoff called a “bad habit” they don’t know how to transcend, he reasoned that boomers are harder for designers and retailers to reach. Boomers tend to watch more TV than their younger counterparts, while most fashion marketers prefer print ads, he noted, pointing out that Gen X and Gen Y read about 8 percent more magazines than boomers.

Moreover, most ad executives interviewed — unlike their counterparts in marketing research and consulting — contended that the majority of boomers are unlikely to be turned off by younger models, while younger customers are more likely to be alienated by mature models.

“The boomer psyche says, ‘I go to the gym, I had my face done; I’m going to look young and stay youthful,’” said Donald P. Ziccardi, chief executive officer of ad agency Ziccardi Partners, Friersen, Mee, whose clients include Ellen Tracy, YM, Fortunoff’s, Midori, Bravo and Radio City Music Hall. “Twenty years ago, 48 was a bit older than 48 today — especially among boomers themselves. It doesn’t mean boomers are turned off, just because the messages in the mass media are geared to youth. The reverse is not true. If the media images were older, they wouldn’t inspire a younger customer.”

But there is an outright lack of honesty among various fashion firms in making this youthful appeal, charged advertising executive Shahid. “Fashion advertisers — every one of them — say they want a young spirit, a young feeling, but what they’re really thinking of is a young image,” Shahid said. “You don’t even hear the words baby boomer anymore. They seem old-fashioned. Fashion advertisers see people in their 40s and 50s as too old a group [to portray] in ads. They conjure up images of the suburbs — not excitement.”