NEW YORK — The profile of the moderate-priced female shopper is one of the most diverse in the apparel sector.

They are women that come from many walks of life, from housewives to executives, but they share a common trait: They buy lots of clothes every year, but have a lot more than fashion on their minds.

The world of moderate shoppers is a group that comprises some women who wouldn’t think of shopping anywhere but J.C. Penney and Kohl’s, and others who prowl the better floors of department stores, pouncing only when the "50 Percent Off" signs go up.

"There are probably, not to be disingenuous, several moderate customers. There are those that are income-issued, but also those that are lifestyle-issued," said consultant Andrew Jassin, a partner in the New York-based Jassin-O’Rourke Group. "What’s happened with the moderate customer is she has been seduced by branding upstairs, but is infatuated with price."

Jassin defines the moderate shopper as a woman aged 28 to 40, with household income ranging from $25,000 to $75,000.

That is a fairly large swath of the population of this country. While exact figures from the latest census aren’t yet available, U.S. Census Bureau data shows that in 2000, 21.7 percent of the female population of the U.S. — 31.2 million people — was 25 to 39 years old, inclusive. Another 11.3 million were aged 40 to 44.

In terms of income, 58.3 percent of U.S. households, or 62.3 million households, reported annual income of $25,000 to $74,999. The median annual household income of the U.S. was $41,433, well within the moderate range.

Jassin sketched out three main categories of moderate consumer:

l The core moderate consumer is a married woman with children with a household income of $45,000 to $75,000 a year. "That consumer is challenged with paying for health care, education, shelter, food," Jassin said. "I don’t know how high up on the list clothing is."

l He described the second group as "the strivers." Those are women with household income lower than $30,000, "that would be the Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target shopper, but because of sales, she goes to the department store," she said.l A small but growing subgroup of moderate consumers are Baby Boomers who are approaching retirement age and frantically saving money, either to make up for poor financial planning or as a result of the sharp downturn in the stock market.

"They are not quite as fashion-conscious as they were before," Jassin said.

There are few clear metrics of how much moderate apparel is sold at retail each year. NPDFashionworld Consumer reported that women aged 25 to 40 with household incomes of $25,000 to $74,999 in 2001 spent $8 billion on apparel, down 14.6 percent from 2000.

That data, gathered by Port Washington, N.Y.-based The NPD Group, is based on a panel of one million American consumers. NPD polls about 40,000 of them each week.

But not all moderate apparel is bought by people in that demographic. A Kellwood Co. spokeswoman said consumers in that income range bought only 43 percent of all moderate apparel last year, with 42 percent bought by shoppers with higher incomes.

Jassin said total annual moderate apparel sales at retail could be as high as $41 billion, which would represent a big chunk of the $99 billion women’s apparel market.

What is clear about moderate apparel shoppers is that clothing is not a top priority for them. They are less likely to enjoy shopping than other Americans, they are more likely to shop where they know they’ll find bargains —?particularly at mass merchants and chain stores, and they spend as little time shopping for clothes as they can.

According to Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor, which polls 4,000 American consumers a year about their fashion preferences, only 22 percent of women aged 28 to 40 with household income of $25,000 to $40,000 said they "love" shopping, compared with 26 percent of other women.

When asked if they would rather spend their money on something else: 62 percent of moderate shoppers agreed, compared with 48 percent of other shoppers, according to Cotton Inc. They also felt more rushed: 45 percent of moderate shoppers said they did not have time to shop for clothes, compared with 31 percent of others. That did not make them shop much less: Moderate women shoppers said they spent 1.6 hours a week shopping for clothes, the same as other shoppers.Moderate shoppers did not vary from the rest of the population in another key area: The price-quality trade-off. Like other shoppers, 57 percent of moderate shoppers said they would pay more for higher quality. Only 43 percent said theywould sacrifice a little quality for a better deal.

But they were less likely to sacrifice comfort for fashion: 26 percent of moderate shoppers said they would make that trade-off, compared with 34 percent of the general population.

Moderate shoppers also said different things influenced their clothing selection. Fifty percent of moderate shoppers got their ideas from people they see regularly and 44 percent got their ideas from family members, compared with 45 percent and 36 percent for the rest of the female population.

Only 34 percent of moderate shoppers said they were influenced by fashion magazines, compared with 42 percent of the rest of the population. Even fewer moderate shoppers pay attention to what celebrities wear: 14 percent cited celebrities as an influence on their wardrobe, compared with 21 percent of other shoppers.

Barbara McGraw, brand manager for Sag Harbor, a Kellwood brand, said her company has found in focus groups that its customers tend to be pragmatic in the sources they turn to for fashion ideas.

"A lot of the customers really enjoyed getting store catalogs in the mail, whether it be from Penney’s, Kohl’s, J. Jill. They mentioned they really liked getting the catalogs at home because they liked looking. Not that they necessarily would order a look, but they would look for it in stores," she said. "They did not want to look at the fashion magazines. They don’t have time to read magazines, nor did they want to be looking at Vogue and Elle and Bazaar. They could care less about that. They wanted to get the catalogs from the stores because that was the reality check for them."

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