NEW YORK — There’s nothing mediocre about the moderate shopper these days.

The population of women buying moderate market clothing appears to be growing, according to industry statistics, as the rough economy and constant discounting encourages many women who have been shopping for higher-priced clothing to trade down to lower price points.

At the same time, women who buy moderately priced sportswear report that they’re pleased with what they’re getting. They’re more likely than the population at large to say they are satisfied with the assortment in stores and they spend more on average than other women — about $60 more per capita last year.

“These are women who enjoy shopping and need to develop wardrobes that fit both their working and home life,” said Art Spar, president of Cambridge, Mass.-based STS Market Research. “Nothing drives apparel spending like the need to get dressed to go to work every day.”

The moderate women’s sportswear consumer is traditionally defined as women ages 28 to 40 living in households with annual income of $25,000 to $75,000. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2000, there were 31.2 million women ages 25 to 39 in the U.S., and households with income of $25,000 to $74,999 represented 48.8 percent of all households. The moderate shopper profile matched up with statistical definitions of average Americans, since the median age for women was 36.5 years, while mean household income in houses where someone worked, as opposed to households supported by government programs or retirement plans, was $56,600. According to the 2000 Census, the median earnings for women who worked full time all year was $27,194. (That figure lagged the median earnings of men by $9,860.)

According to sources, shoppers’ expectations of what they can find at moderate price points are changing.

Andrew Jassin, a principal in the New York consultancy, Jassin-O’Rourke Group, said, “The department stores have focused a lot of their efforts on their brands being in moderate, and one of the phenomenons — which is not unique to right now — is that when better goods are on sale all the time, that to a large degree devalidates moderate. Because if you can buy branded, nationally advertised product, it is empirically more value for the consumer than a product that has no name or doesn’t have that national image.”The result, he said, is a blurring of the lines between price tiers.

“There is a degradation in the better business, which creates more moderate customers,” he said. “That carries all the way down the food chain into the discount stores, where you see a tremendous quantity of branded better goods.”

An analysis of consumer purchasing data from Cary, N.C.-based Cotton Inc. showed that a demographically wide variety of shoppers are purchasing moderate brands today. The analysis was done on the poll-based data by tallying what consumers had purchased items from a list of 25 well-known moderate brands.

By income, the survey found that the largest group of shoppers — 31.6 percent — fell into the $30,000 to $59,999 income bracket. The next largest group of shoppers — 30.5 percent — was from the $60,000 to $89,999 income bracket — which includes people with higher household income than is typically associated with moderate shoppers. A full 20 percent of the shoppers lived in households with income of $90,000 or more. (See Table 1.)

By age, the shopper profile was also broad. The largest demographic was women ages 35 to 55, who represented 31.9 percent of women who purchased moderate apparel in 2002. Close on their heels were women ages 13 to 24, representing 31.5 percent of the market. (See Table 2.)

Using a somewhat revised definition of the moderate woman shopper, STS found that women ages 25 to 40 with household incomes of $30,000 to $80,000 spent $6.2 billion on apparel for the 12 months ended in May. That represented 16.3 percent of the $38 billion women’s apparel market.

Overall, the group found that moderate women spent $384 per capita last year on clothing. That’s higher than the $320 mean budget among women in all income brackets ages 13 and up. Overall, STS found that members of minority groups outspent nonminorities, with blacks spending $480, Asians spending $318 and whites spending $305. Hispanic people spent $404 compared with $377. (Since race is an independent variable from ethnicity, demographers track those two characteristics separately.) (See Table 3.)

“Anyone in the apparel business who’s not marketing to African-American women should have their head examined,” said STS’ Spar. “Clearly, by their spending, apparel is more of a financial priority to them.”At a time when price deflation is a major concern across the apparel industry, moderate women shoppers are actually paying slightly more for apparel. STS found that in the year ended May 2003, moderate women shoppers on average paid $18.71 for each item they purchased, 1 percent more than they’d paid a year earlier. For the same time period, all women shoppers paid 1 percent less per item, for an average ticket price of $19.35.

The biggest increase in price was a 7 percent rise in dresses for an average ticket price of $34.65 among moderate shoppers. The biggest decrease was moderate pants, where the average ticket price dropped 6 percent to $20.42. (See Table 4.)

Looking at the market by brands, specialty store brands held the leading position, with Old Navy, Gap and Lane Bryant topping the list by unit share. However, the moderate apparel market remains quite fragmented, with the top 10 brands representing 21.9 percent of all sales. More than half of the leading brands are private labels, which hold a 50 percent share of the moderate market. Faded Glory’s position — it ranked fourth — belies Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s leading position in unit share. It was the source of 12.6 percent of all apparel bought by moderate women for the year ended in May, well ahead of its nearest rival, J.C. Penney Co., with a 5.6 percent unit share. (See Table 5.)

The Bentonville behemoth aside, specialty retailers had the largest unit market share with moderate women shoppers, as they do with women in general. A full 27 percent of apparel purchased by moderate women shoppers in the year ended May came from specialty stores, with discount stores close on their heels with a 26 percent share. (See Table 6.)

One reason that moderate shoppers are bucking the deflation trend may be that they are willing to pay more for perceived higher quality. Cotton Inc.’s Lifestyle Monitor survey found that among moderate women shoppers, which it defined as women ages 24 to 35 with household income of $35,000 to $75,000, 58 percent said they would pay more for better quality. That compares with 53 percent of other women ages 16 and up who said they would pay more for quality.Moderate shoppers also have fewer complaints about shopping than other women shoppers. They report fewer problems finding clothing in their size and desired color, for instance. (See Table 7.)

Moderate women are also less likely to be plus-sized than the balance of the population. (See Table 8.)

Shopping practices among moderate women also differ from the rest of the population. They shop slightly more often — 2.3 times a month on average compared with 2.2 times for other women — and are most likely to spend between one and three hours in stores per trip. They are less likely than other shoppers to take megatrips of three hours or longer, according to Cotton Inc.’s Lifestyle Monitor.

In addition, 54 percent of moderate shoppers said they are likely to buy an entire outfit at one store, rather than picking up coordinating pieces at different stores, compared with 43 percent of other shoppers who buy complete outfits at a single store.

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