By  on February 9, 2005

NEW YORK — The sweet spots in the apparel business are growing fewer and farther between.

It’s a tough environment fostered by a consumer whose spending priorities are shifting and segmenting faster than ever; a dearth of fashion brands making the kinds of emotional connections needed to trigger many of today’s apparel purchases, and an expanding range of products — from iPods to Ralph Lauren chairs — with which to express one’s personal style.

And while the fashion world’s focus is on the runways at Bryant Park, the broader consumers’ interests lie far, far away at a specialty store in most of the shopping malls across North America — the 850 stores of Old Navy, which surprisingly has emerged as the country’s top-selling brand of apparel among female buyers.

In addition, Old Navy was the most often-purchased label by two of the three generations that together account for about 80 percent of apparel spending by women and girls: the Millennials, ages 10-27, and Generation Xers, ages 28-38, according to NPD Fashionworld. Women and girls spent roughly $6 billion on Old Navy apparel in the 12 months ended in November, or 3.5 percent of the $171.3 billion they expended on apparel overall. The Millennials accounted for around $3.1 billion of that spending; the Xers, about $974 million. Perhaps that is why Old Navy has been on a roll lately, with sales rising 36.5 percent overall in the years from 2000 to 2003.

Old Navy has achieved its top rank, observers said, by combining timely styling, value pricing, easy-care fabrics and a playful spirit — all effectively conveyed in its retro-style marketing, from a seductive Morgan Fairchild to shopping bags that proclaim “Where Shopping Is Fun Again” — and sizes cut more generously for Americans’ expanding waistlines, a growing concern of the country’s fashion denizens.

Nearly one-fifth of the company’s stores, or 150 locations, are offering women’s sizes 16-26. “Old Navy is all about having the color and look of the minute — and it lasts just a few minutes,” said Candace Corlett, principal partner at WSL Strategic Retail. “The concept is fashion fever. You can have a whole new wardrobe every few weeks.”

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