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Underserved Shoppers: Stores Overlook Petites, Plus Sizes and Boomers

In today’s increasingly competitive and volatile marketplace, retailing’s oldest cliché, “know your customer,” has never been...

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NEW YORK — In an age when the mantra “know your customer” is more vital than ever, there are still plenty of consumers who are completely overlooked.

Take the demographic of Nancy Silva, a 43-year-old math teacher, who casually mentioned to a friend that she had her eye on a pair of $60 black stretchy overalls she saw in the Chico’s FAS catalogue.

Big mistake. By the time she got to the Chico’s nearest her home in Plymouth, Mass., Silva’s 52-year-old friend was already at the store and about to purchase a pair of the overalls for herself.

“It’s an unwritten rule that you wouldn’t buy the exact same thing your friend had,” Silva said, laughing. “I mentioned…that I was heading there, and when I walked in, there she was wearing what I was going to buy.” Unable to resist, Silva bought the overalls anyway.

Baby Boomers fighting over the ideal item is an exception given that they are one slice of the consumer pie retailers and manufacturers are neglecting. The marketplace is increasingly competitive and volatile, where consumers’ loyalty to stores is constantly shifting based on the fashion appeal of the merchandise, the prices and the retailer’s image and service. So why are stores and vendors not producing more petite sizes? Or petite-plus sizes? Or fashionable plus sizes for teens? All of these are markets worth millions of dollars in sales.

Even analysts don’t know.

Some chains are getting it right, though. Chico’s, which has established itself as the place to shop for middle-aged women, is clearly a successful example of knowing its customer. In fiscal year 2003 alone, the company’s net income skyrocketed 50.1 percent to $100.2 million over 2002, an increase of 547 percent from earnings in 1999. The Fort Myers, Fla.-based company’s sales jumped 44.7 percent in 2003 to $768.5 million. That’s up 395.8 percent from revenue of $155 million just four years earlier.

Yet the competition is rapidly heating up. Gap Inc. is trying to position itself to an older demographic to take on retailers like Chico’s with a 10-store concept set to be launched next year. Already, Gymboree Corp. has positioned itself to resonate with female Baby Boomers — defined as people born between 1946 and 1964 by the U.S. Census Bureau — who spent about $28.8 billion in the year ended Aug. 30 on women’s apparel, according to The NPD Group. The company announced in April a new concept called Janeville that targets clothing and accessories at women in their mid-30s and older; 10 stores will be rolled out by the end of this year. Meanwhile, start-up Iziz Dezigns has launched a shopping concept, the Atelier Avocado Collection, which features made-to-measure clothing and is aimed at women 35 and older. It is set to be rolled out nationwide in 2005.
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