What are the major trends in consumer shopping behavior for women’s wear? What factors are driving these trends? Management Horizons will address these issues in this Consumer Outlook section.

Demographic Drivers

You know the old saying, “You can’t fight mother nature.” The same is true for fighting demographic trends; it’s an uphill battle. So it’s important to understand how the basic demographic makeup of the consumer population is changing and what implications this has for the women’s wear business.

Influential Demographic Trends**

  • Getting Older
  • More Ethnic
  • More Working Women

First of all, it is important to note that the U.S. population is getting older (or, perhaps more accurately, more “middle aged.”) U.S. Census Bureau statistics indicate that today, as the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation nears its 50th year, the fastest growing age segment is 45 to 54 years old. The implications of this trend are far reaching in terms of consumers’ fashion preferences (more conservative), spending power (constrained by other financial obligations), and shopping frequency (who has the energy?)

Another noteworthy demographic trend is the increasing ethnic diversity of the U.S. population. Census Bureau statisticians have determined that between 1992 and 2000, the black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American segments of the population would all grow much faster than the white majority. People of different cultural backgrounds are likely looking for different things in a clothing purchase. The question is, are designers, manufacturers, and retailers fully aware of these differences?

One common denominator among most consumers, regardless of age, race, or household composition, is a very busy lifestyle. Today, over 70% of the female population aged 20 to 54 is in the workforce, and the percentage is expected to increase in the near future. Implications of this trend for retailers include changes in shopping behavior (less frequent, more purposeful, more convenience-oriented).

Fashion Needs and Preferences

In light of demographic and economic trends, it should come as little surprise that consumers have become less interested in fashion. Management Horizons’ proprietary consumer research* reveals that in 1988, consumers were twice as likely to agree with the statement “It’s important to me to wear fashionable clothing” as to disagree. By the close of 1992, however, the numbers of consumers agreeing and disagreeing were about equal. Today, many consumers are choosing function over fashion, and are opting for more practical or basic styles of clothing rather than trying to keep up with the latest fashion trends.

On a similar note, consumers are dressing a little more casually today than they did five years ago. Between 1988 and the close of 1992, the percentage of consumers wearing business suits on a typical weekday declined while the percentage wearing “somewhat dressy” clothes such as slacks or a skirt with an unmatched jacket increased. In addition, the percentage wearing very casual clothes like jeans increased and the percentage wearing “somewhat casual” clothes like pants or skirts without a jacket has decreased.

Another phenomenon influencing current trends in fashion and dress is the increasing number of women wearing large-sized clothing. As the population has aged, there has been a substantial migration from misses to large sizes. And, as one might intuitively expect, larger-sized women are much less likely than misses, petites or juniors to wear fashions that could be described as trend-setting or contemporary.

Do consumers expect higher quality or fashion content from recognized brand names than from store labels? Not necessarily. The majority of consumers believe that private labels in women’s wear meet the quality and fashion standards set by national brands.

General Shopping Behavior

How have these demographic and attitudinal changes impacted consumer shopping behavior? In general, they’re causing consumers to do less shopping. They’re also causing consumers store preferences to change for women’s wear.

Management Horizons’ research has revealed that consumers are shopping less often at most types of shopping centers and stores than they did five years ago. Declines have been particularly severe at regional malls and city center stores, for reasons related to price/value and convenience. Outlet malls are also losing shoppers. In fact, the only type of shopping center measured which has maintained customer traffic is the neighborhood strip center, the most convenient type of center for most suburban consumers.

Declines are also evident in consumer shopping patterns at a number of store formats. Mall-based stores such as traditional and upscale department stores and Sears saw the greatest declines in traffic between 1988 and the close of 1992, the latest period for which data is available. Declines in traffic were somewhat less severe at apparel specialty stores (many of which are off the mall) and off-price stores.

Among the few formats gaining shopper traffic are discount department stores like Kmart, Wal-Mart, and Target (because of the value and convenience they offer) and non-store shopping alternatives like mail order catalogs and TV home shopping (which are highly convenient for many consumers).

As shopping frequency has changed at many retail formats, so has those outlets’ popularity for most types of women’s wear. Management Horizons’ conclusions about store popularity are derived from our consumer database questions about “store of most purchases” for a particular classification of merchandise. They are not measures of actual dollar or unit volume, but of consumers’ general preferences for a particular type of store. Discount department stores have been the biggest winner in the women’s apparel categories. They have become the most popular store format for both women’s casual clothing and intimate apparel.

Discount department stores have also gained points in women’s dress apparel, but still lag behind department stores and national chain stores in popularity. From a consumer perspective, the appeals of discount department store apparel shopping include convenience (two-thirds of the population shops discount stores on a monthly basis for a variety of household needs), value, and a continually improving apparel offer in terms of fashion and selection. Note that discount department stores are even more popular for children’s clothing than they are for women’s clothing, but apparently a growing number of mothers are shopping the apparel departments for themselves, too.

Through 1992, national chain stores (e.g. Sears) were the biggest loser in other apparel categories – men’s, infants’ and toddlers, boys’ and girls’ – so their declining popularity as an outlet for both women’s dress and casual clothing should come as no surprise. Sears recently has focused attention on its apparel areas and appears to be reaping the rewards in terms of increased sales.

*All statistics in this Consumer Outlook section, unless otherwise indicated, were derived from Management Horizons proprietary consumer database. This database contains results of nationally representative surveys conducted with approximately 4,000 households in the fourth quarters of 1988, 1990, and 1992.

** SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau and Management Horizons Division of Price Waterhouse.

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