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Bridging The Gap Generation Gap

Though on the surface, it might not seem as though teenage girls and their mothers make ideal shopping companions, stores are beginning to stock merchandise that appeals to both — and the formula’s working.<br><br>For example, Animal...

Animal Crackers cordons off its mom-friendly merchandise in a section called NRG Rags.

Animal Crackers cordons off its mom-friendly merchandise in a section called NRG Rags.

George Henson

Though on the surface, it might not seem as though teenage girls and their mothers make ideal shopping companions, stores are beginning to stock merchandise that appeals to both — and the formula’s working.

For example, Animal Crackers, a children’s specialty store in Plano, Texas, began stocking adult clothing two years ago. Adult apparel now accounts for 30% of sales “and it’s grown tremendously,” said buyer Jamie Swartz. “Adults can buy for themselves and for their kids.” And keeping it in the family has paid off: Fifty percent of Swartz’s repeat customers are moms and daughters lured by the store’s multigenerational offerings.

It’s a trend that David Wolfe, creative director at the New York retail consulting firm The Doneger Group, termed “a tricky call.”

“I think the retailer that’s catering to mothers and daughters is doing something smart,” Wolfe said. Younger mothers, especially those under 40, often wear their daughters’ clothes, thanks to a trend he calls “hand-me-ups” — meaning teenagers cycling through trends every few seasons or so give their out-of-style but still wearable clothes to Mom, Wolfe said.

The tricky part lies in appealing to the over-40 set. “Moms under 40 can get away with dressing like their daughters, but once they’re over that age, they realize they’d be dressed inappropriately,” Wolfe said.

Animal Crackers went so far as to cordon off its adult merchandise into a separate, 200-square-foot section called NRG Rags, two years ago. A sign in the window alerts customers to the store-within-a-store, and so does signage hanging from the ceiling. “We wanted everyone who walked in the door to know that there was a major distinction,” Swartz said. “That’s easier than saying ‘there’s some junior stuff over there.’”

Indeed, stocking merchandise that appeals to both age groups but alienates neither is the biggest key to bridging the generation gap.

“When I look at a line, I say ‘is this sexy and feminine, is it fun?’” said Pamela Flasch, owner of Miss Groove, a bigenerational boutique in Milwaukee, Wis. “If it’s too frumpy or too fun, I pass,” she said.

That philosophy has resulted in a merchandise mix that ranges from Project E T-shirts, popular with teens as well as fortysomethings, to knits by Ronnie Rabl, which Flasch terms “funkier, definitely older, funky, but not old-lady-looking.” The knits appeal to women as well as girls with less-than-perfect figures, Flasch said.

The Jean Connection in Dallas caters to both mothers and daughters by carrying more than 25 lines of jeans, all with different styling and fit, said owner Caren Watson. Girls flock to Paper Denim & Cloth, Seven and G Star jeans, while their mothers prefer Christopher Blue and Red Engine.

Like Flasch, Sandra Jones, owner of Nekos boutique in Atlanta, strives for a balance of merchandise. “We try to make it look not too old, not too young,” said Jones.

Her mix includes business-casual pieces by Policy, Filippa, Tom Nguyen and William B, while Juicy Couture, Blue Cult, Joie Denim, and Rockin’ Republic appeal to a younger crowd. (See Nekos’ profile on page 34.)

Not that customers feel bound to stick to one group or another. Jones said that moms will often team a classic blouse with a contemporary pair of jeans, while daughters feel free to browse the business casual section, which takes up the front of the store. “We have the attitude that the clothing is ageless,” Jones said.

Sandy Horwitz, owner of Clothes Minded in Chicago, appeals to both sets of customers by offering various grades of trends. For example, teens will look for a piece fringed to within an inch of its life. Mothers will seek a cleaner version, say fringe on a tie, or a belt. “It’s a lot more subtle,” she said.

To reach older customers, who account for 80% of her business, Horwitz chooses one-size-fits-all or items sized small, medium and large. “That’s good for the misses’ customer,” Horwitz said.

Surprisingly, details that are stereotypically misses’, such as elastic waists, tend to appeal to both sets of customers, she added.

For instance, Horwitz sold two Just in Time faux suede, elastic-waist Western-style skirts to two different customers, one in her twenties and the other around 40 years old. “The difference was in how they did the look,” Horwitz said. The younger customer paired the skirt with a lace top and jean jacket; the older woman topped it with a white stretch blouse.”

Jamie Swartz of Animal Crackers tries to carry large sizes, but finds herself hamstrung by what manufacturers offer. The store carries denim in 24 to 32 waist sizes by Lix, Miss Sixty and Seven. The 32 is comparable to a size 10, “and most of the time that’s the biggest lines come,” Swartz said.

While selection and sizing are most important, placement of apparel also counts in courting moms and daughters. Jones at Nekos places business casual up front and denim, cords and other younger merchandise in the back of the store.

The business casual appeals to younger and older customers and sets a sophisticated tone for the store, she said. “I don’t want people to think the store is all casual,” she said. “At least my displays in the window can advertise both.”

At Miss Groove, merchandising is done according to fit, with junior items on one wall and contemporary on another. “If someone comes in with a certain body type, we direct them toward what will fit them,” Flasch said. who estimated that 20% of her repeat business is from mother-daughter pairs.