These days retailers are making it their business to be involved in social issues, and for the fashion industry that's meant increasing attention to breast cancer and breast health awareness programs.
Building on efforts launched in the last few years, retailers from the high end to those at the moderate and mass level have dramatically expanded their fund-raising and public awareness campaigns regarding breast cancer. Their heightened involvement stems not only from the success of earlier programs but also from a concerted effort by several breast cancer groups to tap the fashion industry both as a communications vehicle to women and as a potential financial resource. Furthermore, in today's competitive retail environment, store executives find social responsibility an important and in some ways vital marketing strategy, enabling them to stand out from the pack and build consumer loyalty by positioning themselves as corporate citizens.
Programs sponsored by retailers in the coming months include in-store seminars and breast cancer literature distribution, promotional events with specific vendors, local sponsorship of mammography, and large-scale events benefitting cancer research organizations.
"There's been a measured growth in the number of retailers and fashion designers interested in breast health awareness campaigns," said Nancy Brinker, founding chair of the Komen Foundation. "Breast cancer affects the lives of so many of the women and their families who shop and work at these stores."
According to Brinker, promotional events at retail not only aid groups such as her own, but also enhance the public image of participating companies. "Designers and retailers have come to understand that it means good business to be involved with issues like breast cancer," she added.
J.C. Penney is a case point. The company is a large national sponsor of the Foundation and its Race for the Cure fundraising efforts. "Our connection with J.C. Penney gives us an opportunity to reach women in every city where they have a store," explained Brinker. "And for Penney, working with us creates another dimension in which they emerge as a leader in the community." (See next page.)
"We refer to this as relationship marketing, where we try to develop relationships with customers through nontraditional marketing ventures," said Carol Edwards, sports programs manager at J.C. Penney. Other retailers embrace similar opportunities to build consumer loyalty through social issues. Five New York stores will join forces to kick off "Breast Health Awareness Month" on October 1 with the "Shop for the Cure," organized by Mirabella magazine. More than 1,000 consumers are expected to participate in this day-long shopping spree consisting of a kick-off breakfast at Saks'Fifth Avenue, a full day of promotional events at all five stores, and a celebrity designer wrap-up party with gifts and prizes. Customers will be given a list of events at each of the participating stores, which include Bloomingdales, Lord & Taylor, Henri Bendel and Felissimo. A portion of the proceeds from the day's sales will benefit the Susan G. Komen Foundation. The first 500 women to sign up will receive a free designer-autographed Council of Fashion Designer's of America t-shirt to benefit the Nina Hyde Breast Cancer Research Center.
"Many of the causes that we are all affected by today have brought a new alignment of priorities among retailers," said Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor. "So when there's an issue like breast cancer or AIDS that affects our industry and people's lives so dramatically, we can put aside our competitiveness and band together to make a real difference."
Naturally, participating retailers hope consumers choose their store over the competition. "If lot of people shop with us, we will give the maximum to the Komen Foundation," said Christine Miller, executive vice president of marketing. Bloomingdales has pledged up to $5000 for this event based on the day's receipts. "Either way, it's a win-win situation for Komen, us and even our customers. Our involvement in this issue most definitely contributes to customer loyalty --and that's especially important in today's retail market."
Neiman-Marcus sees similar gains for retailers via social activism. "It does set a retailer apart by establishing a substantial reputation in issues like breast cancer awareness," noted Liz Barrett, a spokesperson for the store. "It can mean additional store traffic -- some people do decide where to shop based on what retailers do in the community." The Dallas-based retailer, which has funded the Komen Foundation for several years, was also among the first retailers to hold in-store breast health awareness events. For the last two years, the store has joined forces with beauty maven Estee Lauder, distributing literature on breast health and taking pledges from consumers to support breast cancer research. This October, the store plans to additionally link its lingerie promotions to the breast health issue, passing out brochures on the importance of and steps for breast self-examinations.
According to breast health advocates, retailers are perfectly situated to help get a host of educational and other information to the larger population. "Retailer stores have definitely become the new community centers," said Benny Lin, fashion director at Macy's East. "Today, shopping malls are major points of destination for families, and as such they've become a communications center. Through retailers, you can get information to people who otherwise might not get it." Miller at Bloomingdales agreed, adding that retailers can also create a dialogue with consumers via ads, direct mail efforts and statements in monthly bills.
Retailers at the more moderate end of the spectrum also embrace their changing role in American society. Wal-mart, for example, began distributing breast cancer brochures to its customers about six months ago, according to Les Copeland, a company spokesman. The retailer additionally has set up a community bulletin board, where customers and employees can post such items.
K-mart has gone even further. The store recently launched its first breast health awareness program in conjunction with the Michigan Cancer Foundation and Mastercard. For over a month beginning in May, the retailer and Mastercard donated 15 cents of every purchase made with the credit card (up to $50,000) toward funding a mobile mammography unit near its flagship store. The unit will be unveiled during Breast Health Awareness Month this fall. "Women and families are the key groups that we focus on, and breast cancer hits at the heart of the family," said Susan England, healthcare communications specialist at the Troy, MI-based retailer. "Our involvement in breast health programs sends a message that we care about our customers and their health, that we want to provide them with the information they need, and that we see ourselves as an active member of the community."

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