Byline: Robin Lewis

Women are fickle, if not downright promiscuous, when it comes to where they buy their intimate apparel and hosiery. She’ll buy a bra in Wal-Mart, Penney’s, Nordstrom, or Victoria’s Secret, according to whatever tickles her fancy at the moment. She’ll buy sleepwear in Saks, panties in Kmart and hosiery at Ann Taylor, depending on the mood that moves her.
Cross-shopping, or the purchase of different apparel items in different stores or retail channels, is here. Store loyalty for the lifetime apparel needs of any one consumer appears to be a thing of the past.
While department stores once had the lion’s share of intimate apparel, their position has been under constant fire, mainly by the discounters and specialty stores, which have been steadily taking chunks of their business.
Discounters, in fact, now control the largest share of the intimate apparel category. In hosiery, the discounters and food/drug outlets dominate and, along with direct mailers, continue to capture more share. Department store share continues to slip.
These shifts are clearly consumer-driven, as consumers exploit virtually unlim- ited shopping options.
If it’s a rush to save time, a consumer might seek the convenience of a specialty store nearby. If the goal is spending less, she might pursue discount store options. Or, if her value requirement is for a more fashion-forward item, the consumer may shop across several department and specialty stores.
This is a consumer who is loyal to no one, who has different value needs at different times and is clearly taking advantage of an overabundance of choice.
However, while the consumer may appear to be promiscuous about where she shops, she’s actually more discerning than ever. They buy for very specific reasons. They’re also smarter and have a clear idea of what an item is worth. Finally, they know precisely where they can get the best value for the least amount of time and effort.
None of this has to do with having a favorite store, although a shopper may have six favorite stores across all distribution channels. In fact, what some see as promiscuity is really polygamy: the new consumer is discriminately married to many different stores for many different occasions and needs.
The same polygamy exists when choosing between the national brands and private label (which includes store brands). Indeed, in every category except bras, private label is growing in market share while the brands are losing. This indicates both a discerning and more intelligent consumer; she makes a purchase decision based on her own specific value equation, as opposed to being lured simply by the lowest price or the more ephemeral promises of a brand’s advertising.
The apparent loyalty to the national brands in the bra category, in addition to the fact that women are willing to pay regular price, merely reinforces the concept of the discriminating consumer. Part of this loyalty obviously stems from the consumers’ requirements for fit, function and comfort. However, it also points to the fact that the branded suppliers long ago focused on learning what their consumer wanted in a bra and then painstakingly designed, merchandised and marketed their product. Apparently, they are still doing so today. The bra experience provides a clear example of successful strategies that might well be employed by the suppliers and retailers in the other product categories, in order to court the cross-shopper.
As with bras, hosiery brands apparently provide added value over private label. Although the consumer’s product requirements are somewhat different than for bras, if she can find those values more conveniently, and at prices she perceives as fair, the type of store she buys from is not a major concern. This is clearly a product category in which the knowledgeable and discerning consumer has a specific set of value requirements and knows the retail outlets that can deliver them.
In many cases, the stores she chooses are brand names themselves, such as Victoria’s Secret, which, from the consumers’ perspective, provide value equal to the “national brands.” Therefore, this form of private labeling will continue to grow. It provides the consumer with branded value and provides the retailer with greater pricing and margin flexibility.
So, as they improve their sourcing skills, retailers will increasingly compete with the national brands. In effect, they will be marketing their stores as brands. And for those that have outlets nationwide, their sheer physical presence is equivalent to a powerful advertising campaign.
Another indication of a more knowledgeable and discerning consumer is the fact that she is increasingly willing to pay regular price in retail channels that are generally recognized for their lower prices. This describes a consumer who has a clear idea of what something is worth, relative to where she’s buying it. It also describes a store that understands this consumer’s value equation and knows how to deliver it. Therefore, the consumer will seek the product in that store and happily pay what’s asked. These discerning shoppers are also increasing their purchases in these stores at the expense of other retailers who have not responded to the value demands of the consumer.
While the largest share of shoppers across all channels spans the 30-to-64-year-old age group, the 30-to-44 segment is growing at a faster clip. There are also higher incomes across almost all channels, which again signals a heightened selectivity, regardless of traditional perceptions of what a store may have represented in the past. In fact, in the discount tier, consumers with incomes over $60,000 comprise the fastest-growing share. This dramatically illustrates that cross-shopping for different values, across all store types, will be with us well into the next century.