With women’s apparel sales still strengthening after a robust 2004, it might come as a surprise to learn that 61 percent of teen girls and women polled said they shop for clothing or accessories just once a month or less.

That’s the bottom line in a recent WWD survey, which highlights what analysts say is an emerging concern for apparel retailers: Consumers are increasingly time-starved, and shopping for the latest flirty skirt could be becoming less of a priority.

A general lack of time among Americans “is definitely an issue,” said Lars Perner, a consumer psychologist and professor with San Diego State University. “There really is more of a need to stand out and give people a reason to look at your merchandise,” he said.

It’s difficult to track how Americans organize their days and what new demands might be robbing — or happily replacing — time they might otherwise be spending shopping. One eye-opening survey by Texas A&M University released in early May showed that the average person spends 47 hours a year stuck in road traffic, up from 16 hours in 1982, and this costs the economy $63.1 billion a year in wasted gas, time and potential business.

A first-ever U.S. Labor Department study released in September could also be illustrative for apparel retailers. For example, the Time Use Survey found women spend three hours watching television daily, or more than half of their average five hours allotted for leisure activities — a swath of options that also covers sports and socializing. (Men watched slightly more TV, or 3.5 hours, of their 5.6 hours of daily leisure.)

As far as shopping — an endeavor not separated by the Labor survey into venues — women on average spend about one hour a day in stores, but that also includes supermarkets. Men shop 45 minutes daily, on average.

Time-starved shoppers are being cited for a noticeable increase over the past three years in requests for Macy’s By Appointment personal shopper services. Now the 100-store chain plans to launch, in two weeks, private shopping parties to give harried customers an excuse to get immersed in fashion and to socialize with three or four friends, said Leslie Clark, director of the Macy’s West personal shopping and studio services in Southern California. Stores will provide refreshments and the undivided attention of sales clerks.

This story first appeared in the June 20, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Macy’s officials hope the parties will raise the profile of personal shopping, and that it’s not just for socialites, Clark said. “People tend to think you need to buy a lot to have personal shopping,” Clark said, declining to give figures on growth of the business.

Of course, enticing shoppers to buy a pair of jeans or designer duds and then return to buy more on a regular basis is an age-old dilemma. Retailers are now being advised that the key to harnessing today’s apparel shoppers is by merchandising according to consumer lifestyles — by relating to where shoppers work, their family demands, pastimes and favorite vacation spots, restaurants and popular culture ideals. It’s going beyond boilerplate demographics, such as race, age, income and zip code.

“It’s no longer about this homogeneous consumer. Retailers and manufacturers are just now figuring out we are not all the same,” said NPD Group’s Marshal Cohen, chief analyst. Now, competing stores often feel like “they have to match. It’s a sea of sameness. The future is about stores finding their own path.”

Aba Kwawu, a Washington, D.C., marketing consultant with fashion clients, said lifestyle marketing often involves brainstorming among executives from across products and brands used by similar consumers.

“They are innovation sessions,” said Kwawu, who calls the focus on lifestyles part of the “democratization” of fashion over the last few years that has made designer trends more broadly available, such as when Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld last year sold a special line of apparel at the global Swedish cheap-chic chain H&M.

Mixing fashion segments is a marketing staple at nine-store Intermix, a New York-based women’s boutique with a new store in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. Store officials said sales hit $60,000 the first day there. Another store is slated to open soon in Southampton, N.Y., on Main Street.

Intermix’s name reflects the company’s mission to sell apparel from established and new designers, as well as trendy and lower-priced basics like jeans, shirts and vintage garments, in order “to attract a broad clientele,” which marketing coordinator Jamie Mark said is displayed according to lifestyle — nighttime, daytime and casual. Outfits are pulled together on mannequins to help fashion-shy customers. It’s also a way to save the consumer time, by coordinating unique pieces for her.

“An expensive Chloé top can be paired with distressed jeans by True Religion for $160,” Mark said. “We’ve found people also want an edited selection and don’t want to find the same merchandise everywhere.”

Like many boutiques, Intermix is popular among young women. But because of the store’s variety of separates, a 55-year-old with contemporary ideas about style can mix and match to find suitable outfits, Mark said.

According to the WWD shopping survey, younger consumers shop more at smaller specialty apparel chains, such as Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch and Express; 13- to 17-year-olds and those 18 to 34 were likely to shop there more regularly — 68 and 60 percent, respectively. About 35 percent of 35- to 49-year-olds shop regularly at smaller specialty chains, as do 25 percent of those 50 and over.

By comparison, large specialty chains seemed to attract similar numbers of shoppers across the age groups, led by 16 percent of those 50 and older, who said they turn to stores like Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus with regularity. The next-largest group was ages 18 to 34, with 15 percent saying they regularly shop at large specialty chains, followed by 12 percent of 35- to 49-year-olds and just 11 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds.

Female shoppers 35 to 49 and over 50 were more likely to regularly frequent department stores for apparel and accessory purchases, or 66 percent and 71 percent, respectively, of those polled. In contrast, 62 percent of those 13 to 17 and 65 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds regularly shop department stores. 

The survey also found that the older you are, the more regularly you shop via catalogues: 32 percent of those 50-plus and 25 percent of those 35 to 49; 28 percent of the 18-to-34 group, and 13 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds said they regularly shop catalogues.

In a perhaps surprising finding — busting a myth that older people tend to be less computer-savvy than the younger generation — among those 50 and over, 32 percent  shop for fashion on the Web, compared with 31 percent for those 35 to 49; 28 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds, and 18 percent for the 13- to 17-year-olds.

The popularity of discount stores ranged across ages, and not surprisingly, those with less household income more regularly shop at lower-priced outlets like Target and Wal-Mart. Some 68 percent of women 35 to 49, and 59 percent of those 50 and older, shop at discounters — compared with 63 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds and 68 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds. Seventy-eight percent of women with household incomes of $35,000 to $50,000 shop at discounters, as do 74 percent of those with incomes of $50,000 to $75,000. Sixty-three percent of those with incomes of $75,000 to $100,000 regularly seek out discount stores, while 48 percent with incomes $100,000 and more also shop there.

In terms of apparel and accessory shopping frequency, the younger you are, the more apt you are to be in a store, the survey found. Teens 13 to 17 and young women 18 to 34 — or 44 and 51 percent of those surveyed, respectively — said they shop once a month or less, and 69 percent of 35- to 49-year-olds shop once a month or less, compared with 71 percent of 50-year-olds surveyed.

Ira Kalish, director of Consumer Business at Deloitte Research, said he was struck by how young women, as underscored by the survey, spread their apparel and accessory store shopping around.

“That creates a challenge for retailers,” said Kalish, who isn’t alarmed that 61 percent of young women in the overall survey said they shop for clothing or accessories once a month or less. He said the availability of fashion through multiple outlets gives consumers “greater discretion to buy apparel.”

Of more concern to Kalish for apparel and accessory retailers’ sales is competition for disposable income from other products, such as the wildly popular Apple iPod personal digital music player.

Consumer shopping “priorities have shifted with gains for electronics,” concurred NPD’s Cohen. “Apparel is on the right track; however, we are not doing enough to sustain it,” he said, noting how 2004 was the first healthy year for women’s apparel sales at U.S. retailers after three lackluster years. As far as lifestyle marketing to capture consumer loyalty, Cohen said the concept is valid, “but difficult to do.”

Last year, the Commerce Department reported sales at stores selling primarily women’s, misses’ or juniors’ apparel, which would include stores like Ann Taylor and Forever 21, came to $35.24 billion, up 11.3 percent from $31.7 billion in 2001. Stores selling primarily apparel for a family — women, men, children and teens, and which would include Kohl’s and Mervyn’s — were $70.6 billion in 2004, up almost 18 percent.

Pam Norum, an associate professor of apparel and textile management at the University of Missouri in Columbia, said the phenomenon of women being pressed for time to shop for fashion isn’t new, but is just taking different forms as the retail apparel market has grown.

“I do believe surveys that women aren’t shopping as much, because they haven’t had a reason to shop,” Norum said, noting how the recent emphasis on more feminine silhouettes and color has sparked renewed consumer enthusiasm and bolstered sales. Going forward, she said brand loyalty should be aggressively cultivated, especially in this time-starved era. Details like a good fit are only going to increase in importance among the time-starved crowd.

Apparel-sizing scanners, like one recently tested to crowds at Levi’s stores, “will be the next big thing,” Norum said. “It’s part of mass customization. What I would really like is if I could plug my whole dimensions in a software package on the Internet that could say which brands have the right dimensions for me.”

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