NEW YORK — If studying how many times consumers went sailing or snowboarding seems like a strange way to understand clothing preferences, think again: Knowing this type of information could provide important insight into the fashion psyche of women. At least that’s what many clothing companies are banking on as they invest deeply in consumer research, hiring professional firms to analyze lifestyles and behaviors, in addition to keeping a close eye on retail sales. All this is done in an effort to get inside the coveted shopper’s head and learn what would make her part with her precious disposable income.“What’s happening is there’s a whole new issue of lifestyle, and different kinds of lifestyles people are leading,” said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon Associates, which conducts many such studies for Seventh Avenue.“In order for these big businesses to understand their customers, they have to understand factually rather than instinctually. Is this the final answer? No, but it certainly provides a lot of factual input to help [companies] move forward. Everybody needs a compass and this helps point them in the right direction. Still, nobody likes to admit, especially in an egocentric business like fashion, that they need research to know their consumer. But knowing about the customer takes as much work as knowing how to source product and cut fabric.”John Mincarelli, assistant chairman of the fashion and merchandising department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said companies today are often going beyond the normal demographic studies, buying sophisticated software to do “datamining.”“They are looking for commonalities,” Mincarelli said. “It could pop up that they all bought a certain CD or vacationed in a certain spot. It’s fascinating because it’s not limited. Everybody is searching for that one hook to connect to the customer and that’s why so much research is going down.”Not unlike studies that have long been used by the consumer products and automobile industries, these services aren’t cheap — running from $20,000 to more than $1 million for a specialized market study — such as one performed by NPDFashionworld. But the investment can be cheaper than making mistakes on clothing for megafirms such as Liz Claiborne Inc., Jones Apparel Group and Kellwood Co.“As companies get bigger, the risks get bigger. So what could be more important than a customer’s point of view?” Aronson said. “Customer research is not going to be the silver bullet. It’s just one point. But in terms of being able to get down to relevant information and being able to get more precise, it’s very important.”Hal Upbin, president, chairman and chief executive officer at Kellwood, said as competition heated up and greater consolidation of retailers occurred, it became even more important to get input from the actual consumer. The firm spends about $2 million a year on research, not including divisional efforts.“The consumer today is into lifestyle, and all of this translates into fit, price and color,” Upbin said. “We use focus groups at the divisional level to find out specifically what that particular consumer is looking for and it reflects very much on their lifestyle.”Like many firms, Kellwood pays close attention to the statistical data and demographic information obtained through firms like NPDFashionworld as well as tracking point-of-sale information to see what’s selling. In addition, some of its brands, such as Emme, Sag Harbor, Democracy and Jax, have their own Web sites, which Upbin said is helpful in discerning what consumers want.“Emme has 10,000 registered users and they’re giving her information on size, style, attitudes, shopping habits, what’s missing and she’s getting this on a regular basis,” said Upbin. By analyzing the likes, dislikes and all available data about its consumers, Upbin said Kellwood updated Sag Harbor, its core moderate brand, to give it a more current look, and will relaunch the moderate, but slightly edgier Bice.“There’s no one way [to research consumers], but you should use everything at your disposal. It becomes more and more important in defining the product for the consumer,” he said. “What’s changed for Kellwood is the focus, intensity and formalization of the marketing department, which was formed about three years ago.”Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPDFashionworld, a nationwide organization based in Port Washington, N.Y., which tracks consumer spending and has witnessed about a 22 percent increase in clients over the last three years, said clothing manufacturers have begun to realize that solely using retail, point-of-sale information does not tell the whole story.“It’s nice to know the style, color and what price the items were sold at, but that’s all you get,” he said. “What’s going on in today’s world is that you really need to understand what’s going on in the consumer’s head, what I call the ‘whys behind the buys.’ What that does is give the ability to speak directly to the consumer, learn about their shopping experience and what influences them to make a purchase.”Knowledge of that information is critical, Cohen said, as apparel makers today are not just competing against other apparel makers, but for that share of wallet space that could easily go toward a cell phone, car payment or other living expense.“Clients have started to realize the need to understand what’s going on outside of their environment,” he said. “That includes [outside] their own brand and retailers, as consumers start to shop other channels. That’s leading the manufacturers and retailers to learn about arenas that go beyond their original scope.”The importance of getting to know its consumer and what motivates her to buy is something Liz Claiborne has been keenly aware of since the arrival of chairman and ceo Paul Charron eight years ago, said Al Shapiro, senior vice president of corporate marketing.“One of the things we believe in strongly is that understanding the consumer really has to underlay what we do,” said Shapiro, noting that the firm spends about $1.5 million a year on research, of which about $1 million is propriety research and the rest is from syndicated and trend services. “The purpose of the research is not just to explore the obvious, which is what styles will be on trend, but what motivates them and how apparel fits into their lifestyles. We think consumers buy apparel not just for the obvious reasons but because it complements the way they live.”Liz Claiborne employs a myriad of methods to learn what makes its consumer tick — from a research and consulting firm with staff psychologists who study the motivation behind apparel by looking at human behavior, to lots of focus groups, telephone research and mall intercepts.He said Claiborne’s generous sizing was the result of research findings some time ago that the American consumer was growing bigger and the aging population led to an emphasis on comfort and versatility. About six years ago, the company started developing a lot of easy care products extending into cotton and linen after learning that “easy care” was important for its consumers, he said.“It’s a cliché, but the fact of the matter is, information is power and this information about the consumer is power,” Shapiro said. “Years ago, manufacturers developed product and then attempted to convince consumers to buy it. For us, it’s important to find out what consumers want first.”In today’s fast and competitive world, there’s no time for rest, Shapiro said.“Consumer attitudes change constantly, so the research we did five years ago needs to be validated or updated,” he added.At Jones Apparel Group, most of the research is focused around consumer data from firms such as NPDFashionworld and KSA.“It’s fairly sophisticated data and that tells us what the trends are in color, styling, and we can even go down to size level,” said Wes Card, chief financial officer. “One of the key things looking forward, we’re working with a number of retailers in trying to improve the timeliness ofthe data because that’s so important when you’re starting to develop the line.”Rather than using focus groups to study its consumer, Card said Jones focuses more on selling trends.“Once you start to carefully watch what’s selling, you can see the trends,” he said. “Whether skirts are going from longer to shorter or shorter to longer, what’s the pants and how are they trending and you can look at it by market. If there’s a trend toward pants, maybe that’s national or maybe that isn’t. Right off the bat, when Nine West was introduced, we found out that consumers reacted very much to the knit tops and casual elements of the line and we started adjusting to that.”Card said Jones is working toward developing programs to increase its speed of reaction, with the goal of reacting to selling information with merchandise in the stores in about two to three months time. Internally, Card said president and future ceo Peter Boneparth is asking each of the divisions to communicate more and share information with each other.Not all firms can afford pricy research studies and statistical data to find out what consumers’ want, said Emanuel Weintraub, president of Emanuel Weintraub Associates, a management consulting firm.“If you’re making goods that aren’t merchantable, if they’re not where the consumer’s head is, forget about how good your package is,” Weintraub said. “The burden is on the smaller firms to get it right. A lot of it has to be intuitive, but they should listen to retailers and talk to them.”Regardless of the method companies use — whether sophisticated, scientific research or old-fashioned mall stops and cold calls, strategic consultant Andy Jassin, partner in the Jassin-O’Rourke Group, said it’s good that consumers are finally being heard.“Not everyone can afford to do the research in a traditional manner, but everyone who is a merchant can afford to speak to the consumer. You get your salespeople on the floor and ask people what they think,” Jassin said.“What’s important is the fact that the consumer is not alienated, they are included, and it’s not an effort to bypass the retailer. It’s about getting to the consumer and getting them to react favorably, and it’s a lot less expensive to hear from the consumer than to hear from the retailer that clothes didn’t sell.”

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