IRVINE, Calif. — Draper’s & Damon’s is no longer content to be the “little old lady from Pasadena.”

The 76-year-old, moderate-priced misses’ chain based here is taking a cue from the wild success of Chico’s FAS and striving to capitalize on its built-in customer base with updated stores and styles.

The strength of the aging Baby Boomer market — which co-president Jeff Farmer describes as “underserved” — has the chain poised for “tremendous opportunity” and “double-digit scalable growth.”

To that end, he said, the company recently “invested significantly” in its infrastructure to support the expansion by filling key executive positions in customer support and product development.

Farmer runs the company with two other co-presidents, his brother, Brad Farmer, and cousin, Brent Bostwick. They are great-nephews of Virginia Farmer, who opened the first Draper’s & Damon’s store in Pasadena in 1927.

Only two years ago, Draper’s & Damon’s was a very different company, stocked with casualwear, sportswear and dresses in misses’, petite and women’s sizes from such California-based resources as Da-Rue, Willi of California and Koret of California.

Then, executives noticed a change in the way their customers were shopping.

“A woman in her 50s today coming through our stores has a much younger mind-set than a woman 10 years ago at that same age,” said Farmer. In addition, he said, a Baby Boomer shops more frequently and spends more money.

In an effort to keep up, Farmer said Draper’s & Damon’s made an attempt to shed its “old lady store” image — “we sold a lot of muumuus five years ago” — and become a “women’s store” with younger but classic merchandise.

Private label lines quickly replaced the branded assortment and now make up 100 percent of the mix. In 2001, stores were only 10 percent private label. Draper’s & Damon’s focuses on fashion in wide fits, with sizes running from small to 3X, as well as novelty details and texture.

For fall, bestsellers include an acrylic sweater set at $88, mixed with cashmere and a boiled wool jacket with a mandarin collar, a silver-tone zipper pull and angled pockets at $99. Another sought-after item is a bouclé tweed jacket, $149, trimmed with a napa leather collar and leather pocket flaps.“Our key focus was to create a consistent garment with higher quality and better value compared with what we had given in the past,” said Farmer, noting 60 percent of goods are produced in Taiwan, China or Thailand, while the rest is made in California. “Instead of picking from vendors all over and trying to assemble a color story, we can make sure it all works [together].”

Bucking the so-called sea of sameness at retail was another consideration.

“Exclusivity was a big issue,” noted Wendy Bellamy, vice president of merchandising. “We didn’t want to sell brands you’d see in department stores. We didn’t want to get into price wars.”

But becoming a manufacturer has not been an easy adjustment for the retailer, Farmer admitted. “There’s a lot more pressure on us now to hit the mark,” he said. “We’re no longer buyers. We’re merchandisers and designers. And that’s not what our background has been.”

The three co-presidents, themselves in their 40s, are well aware the 45-plus age group is not only a large segment of the population — 38.5 million women in the U.S. — but also where the real money is.

“Retailers have long been enthralled with younger consumers who have for a long time been outspending their population percentage,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group. “The ignored [older] generation is no longer going to be so ignored. What was the fastest-growing market is now one of the slowest, and the most ignored is quickly displaying the best opportunities.”

One of the advantages to the misses’ business, say observers, is its safety from radical shifts in spending patterns and fashion tastes. “As long as you pay attention to your business and customer, you will not make those mistakes,” said Farmer.

Last year, the privately held firm notched $130 million in sales and posted single-digit comparable-store increases, according to executives. Draper’s & Damon’s catalog operation also has grown from modest “sketch” brochures mailed to customers in 1994 to a direct-mail business comprising 36-page catalogs sent out 16 times a year to 1.1 million customers. There is also an e-commerce sales channel representing 13 percent of direct sales. Catalog and Internet sales make up 60 percent of the firm’s total volume.The remaining 40 percent of sales are from bricks-and-mortar retail. Stores, averaging 3,500 square feet in size, are somewhat dowdy in decor with carpeted floors, discounter-style fixtures and simple signage. But that, too, will soon change. Tight-lipped about specific plans for now, a prototype is in the works for a chain-wide rollout in 2004, according to Farmer. He said the firm is nowhere near saturation point with a current roster of 40 stores and three outlets in California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Maryland and Virginia.

“We’re evolving quicker than we have in the past,” he said. “As we pay attention to a Chico’s and we see other retailers doing well, there is validation outside the walls here on who this customer is.”

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