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Vive La Difference

Europeans’ attitudes toward work and life…what causes ideas to spread…jeans’ dollar volume surges.

First-quarter business at Gap stores, along with a handful of other chains, fueled growth in sales of women’s jeans.

First-quarter business at Gap stores, along with a handful of other chains, fueled growth in sales of women’s jeans.

Who says Europeans are more happy in adapting a work-to-live attitude than their American counterparts, known as a group who mostly lives to work? Certainly not a new Harris Poll that finds Americans “much more happy” with their lives and “much more optimistic” about their future than Europeans. This is clearly good news for U.S.-based marketers, noted Humphrey Taylor, chairman at the Harris Poll. “High expectations have a high correlation with strong consumer confidence and tend to increase purchasing activity,” Taylor said. “When expectations are low, it’s harder to market new fashion, let alone sell more things.”

More than twice as many Americans, or 57 percent, say they are “very satisfied” with their lives, compared with an average of 21 percent of Europeans. Forty-nine percent of Americans think their lives have improved in the past five years, versus an average of 36 percent of Europeans. And 63 percent of people in the U.S. expect their personal situation will improve in the next five years, against 40 percent in Europe, on average.

Only one country in Europe exceeded the U.S. in life satisfaction, Denmark, with 64 percent of Danes saying so. Europe’s next most satisfied were those in The Netherlands (45 percent) and Luxembourg (39 percent). Euro-satisfaction levels were at low tide in Portugal (6 percent), Greece (11 percent) and France (14 percent).

SIZE DOESN’T MATTER: Quality rather than quantity creates the best word of mouth, author-journalist Malcolm Gladwell told a group of marketing executives and journalists who gathered last Thursday for a panel discussion he led, sponsored by Lucky magazine, about what causes trends and ideas to spread like wildfire. Drawing on his days as a Washington Post science writer, Gladwell, now a staff writer at The New Yorker, noted it takes just 1 to 2 percent of a group to turn a disease into an epidemic — and an equally small share of mavens, or people equipped with a passion for knowledge and a desire to share it, to explode a trend. “These people are not necessarily the best educated or wealthiest, but they do have a special social power,” Gladwell observed.

Too, cultural leverage doesn’t necessarily equate with big numbers, agreed panelists Dee Dee Gordon, president of trend forecaster Look Look; Ron Frasch, chairman and chief executive officer at Bergdorf Goodman; Richard Pleplar, executive vice president at HBO, and Nina Garduno, vice president of men’s fashion at Fred Segal. “There’s such a push to make everything mainstream, it snuffs the little guys out,” Garduno said. “How many great specialty stores are there in the world? Ten. How many great TV shows? There’s always just a handful.”

And it still takes some patience, amid America’s hyperkinetic marketing whirl, to allow a trend or concept to take off. “Word of mouth often takes time to build,” Gladwell emphasized. “Think of TV — the most successful shows typically take time to catch on. Seinfeld, for one, had a horrible first season.”

DENIM SKIRTS THE BLUES: Eluding the protracted slump in sales of women’s sportswear, dollar-volume produced by purchases of women’s jeans, in the first quarter, surged 22 percent, to tally $1.47 billion, up from $1.21 billion in the prior-year period, found STS Market Research. A handful of stores fueled that jeans business: Gap, Old Navy, Kohl’s, Target and Wal-Mart. Firm prices helped, too, with jeans going for $22.26 on average versus $22.33 a year ago, while the average price of a sportswear item fell 4 percent to $18.98 from $19.77. The first-quarter jeans volume marks a 28 percentage-point upswing from the 6 percent drop in overall sales of women’s sportswear during the period, which came to $8.46 billion, versus $8.99 billion a year earlier.

Separately, STS is now offering data on shoppers’ sportswear consumption behavior at specific chains, extending the boundaries of consumer research from the retail channel to the store level. For example, people’s responses to changes in product assortments, pricing and displays have been culled by canvassing shoppers at Wal-Mart Stores, J.C. Penney, Target, Kohl’s, Gap, Sears, Kmart, TJX, Limited Brands, Federated Department Stores and May Department Stores Co. units. The number of men and women, ages 13 and older, surveyed ranges from 700 at Federated up to 2,500 at Wal-Mart. “For years, consumer research was done by channel,” noted Mike Hand, a partner and senior vice president of business development at Cambridge, Mass.-based STS. “The broader distribution of brand-name goods and the resulting spread of cross-shopping have made it necessary to consider consumer behavior at the store level.”

VIRTUAL APPEAL: Is apparel’s cyber-shot in the arm on the horizon, or is it simply a virtual mirage? During the first quarter, Internet surfers in 11 of 13 countries increasingly scrapped low-speed modems in favor of high-speed Internet access in at-home computers, Nielsen/NetRatings found. Fashion images with the sharper resolution and more precise colors conveyed by broadband have long been expected to boost sales of apparel online. Although it’s been among a handful of e-commerce bestsellers for several years, apparel still realizes just a small portion of its overall business the e-way.

Prospects look brightest in Hong Kong, where 65 percent had high-speed hookups in the first quarter, compared with the 16 percent with low-speed connections. Also promising were Brazil and Sweden, where surfers were switching to broadband at the fastest rate, among those polled: 16 percent in each did so between January and March. Italy and Germany were the only countries canvassed where the number of broadband users didn’t grow. N/NR surveyed Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the U.K.

In the U.S., which was not included in the N/NR first-quarter study, 36 percent of at-home ’Net users had high-speed access in April, or 39 million people, up 55 percent from 25.2 million, or a 24 percent share, a year earlier.