Trends and strategies in a tough economy

Continued meanderings on the theme of Premium vs Luxury, combined with the eco-psycho-social import of Why we buy.

First up is an article Darby mentions from the WSJ The Forgotten Market Online: Older Women. The subtitle says it all: New Fashion Sites Target Youth Though Most Web Apparel Sales Are to Women Over 35. You can read it for their take on the subject. Mine is that the problem with traditional apparel marketing focus is owing to a disconnect between evolving spending and lifestyle habits. The majority of apparel purchasers had previously been younger women with more active social lives, partially attributable to attracting a mate. Simply put, it had been that the younger you are, the more clothes you bought. The move to marketing online seemed complimentary to the concept; it was supposed online buyers were the most progressive buyers (younger) but it turns out, neither are true.

Will things change? Attitudes die hard in the apparel industry. Here’s an article from Apparel’s website called 8 Strategies for Selling Apparel to Middle-Aged Women. Can’t speak for you but I giggled to read that 25-45 year olds are considered “middle-aged”. Which reminds me, that’s your in. If it’s old hags like me buying loot on the web, your sites need to be friendlier. Just ditch the four point font, we can’t read it. Don’t make us hunt for stuff. Do you want to sell or be a web tourist attraction for other 20 somethings? You really need to read How Changing a Button Increased a Site’s Annual Revenues by $300 Million. The cut to the chase summary of this great read is we don’t want to commit to a relationship just to buy your stuff.

Switching gears a bit, the NYT says Tight times loosen creativity. Having nothing left to lose, many are relieved to do as they please. It can be liberating. This circuitously brings me to this next piece, What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous. Uncertainty is the biggest killer of productivity, don’t you agree?

…researchers at the University of British Columbia studied people who had undergone genetic testing to determine their risk for developing the neurodegenerative disorder known as Huntington’s disease. Those who learned that they had a very high likelihood of developing the condition were happier a year after testing than those who did not learn what their risk was.

But why?…Why would we prefer to know the worst than to suspect it? Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.

If you don’t have the liberty of doing as you please and are tired of uncertainty, What to do when you don’t know what to do may help you define your course and move towards it. Very often, you just can’t know. Eliminate ambiguity by working a plan that doesn’t depend on intangible forces outside your control. Speaking of the current economic climate that is.

Again switching gears is Message in What We Buy, but Nobody’s Listening. I’m torn on this one. Dr. Miller’s argument on signaling is ubiquitous (emphasis is mine):

Dr. Miller says that much of the pleasure we derive from products stems from the unconscious instinct that they will either enhance or signal our fitness by demonstrating intelligence or some of the Big Five personality traits… But once you’ve spent the money… how much good are these signals actually doing you? Not much, Dr. Miller says. The fundamental consumerist delusion, as he calls it, is that purchases affect the way we’re treated.

The grand edifice of brand-name consumerism rests on the narcissistic fantasy that everyone else cares about what we buy. (It’s no accident that narcissistic teenagers are the most brand-obsessed consumers.) But who else even notices? Can you remember what your partner or your best friend was wearing the day before yesterday? Or what kind of watch your boss has?

Personally, I think his example of an iphone wasn’t the best choice to illustrate his points. I love my iphone. Do I care if you care that I have an iphone? No, I do not, not one single bit, the iphone makes me happy and has nothing to do with you. Still, Dr Miller provides a twist to signaling:

“Evolution is good at getting us to avoid death, desperation and celibacy, but it’s not that good at getting us to feel happy,” he says, calling our desire to impress strangers a quirky evolutionary byproduct of a smaller social world.

“We evolved as social primates who hardly ever encountered strangers in prehistory,” Dr. Miller says. “So we instinctively treat all strangers as if they’re potential mates or friends or enemies. But your happiness and survival today don’t depend on your relationships with strangers. It doesn’t matter whether you get a nanosecond of deference from a shopkeeper or a stranger in an airport.”

Next up is Rethinking the Merchandise Forumula, summarizing comments of apparel industry veteran David Birnbaum. [The article is gated so I’ll try to summarize without running afoul of copyright.] Birnbaum says much of the fault of slowing apparel sales rests on manufacturers who make one of two assumptions. The first assumption is consumers aren’t buying what stores are selling. OR -the second assumption- is retailers aren’t selling what the customer wants to buy. In other words, in the minds of manufacturers, it’s either consumers or retailers who are to blame. Birnbaum says most of the industry (<90%) lies in the “they’re not buying what we’re selling” camp. Stance determines strategy, one reacts according to the defined problem. Those in the latter camp fully intend to outlast the recession, weathering current difficulties until the economy recovers usually by strong arming suppliers and a variety of cost reductions. The point being, they do what they have to do while waiting for good times to return again. Birnbaum says this is wrong.

The overall assumption being made in this circumstance is that the brand or retailer controls the market, that it knows what customers want. Getting consumers to pay more for less quality or value is inherent in this stance, according to Birnbaum.

“The underlying assumption is that the consumer’s a moron,” said Birnbaum. “I have to tell you that the average American may not be the smartest person to walk the face of the earth, but when it comes to buying — bunch of Nobel Prize winners.”

Birnbaum says apparel sales have been decreasing appreciably since 1997 -which should not be news to anyone- preceding today’s economic turn down. At the risk of dragging out my Lean Manufacturing Soap Box™, Birnbaum specifically mentions companies like Gap (push manufacturer) as being in the worst trouble and lean producers like Zara as being in the best.

The conclusion to infer is apparel purchasing has been waning for some time and even if the economy improves, apparel may not recover to the extent many would hope. Even if it did improve, it’s arguably a wash because energy prices will return to previous levels. Remember last summer’s $4 a gallon gas? A wise person would keep things as close to home as possible although energy is priced very low right now.

Previous in this entry I mentioned the matter of uncertainty being a real confidence killer. I think the best approach is to assume things won’t get better because even if they do, energy prices will go back up. That doesn’t mean you can’t get in the game or be more competitive because people still have to wear clothes, the question becomes, how will you do that? Perhaps you’ll review how the industry has changed forever. Well, that and lean manufacturing.

My money says I won’t get three comments on this entry :). Seriously, enjoy the upcoming long weekend.

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  1. Elaine Good says:

    Ah, well, I’ll try for the first…. ;)

    And now I have about 5 articles open in tabs to read tonight or tomorrow if I get a minute between shuttling farmer dh from field to field (it’s planting season and it’s late….) Yes, it’ll definitely be a long weekend here in Illinois.

  2. Nina says:

    One of my biggest issues with fashion sites online is usability. The focus is so often on interesting design rather than ease of use that I suspect companies lose sales from the younger demographic simply because they are used to sites that are faster and easier to use. No one wants to spend half an hour waiting for a flash site to keep up with their brain when they are shopping, nor do people want to learn to use a site unless there’s a real benefit to it. It’s no surprise that people with less experience of usable sites (like social networking sites and other sites that feature 2.0 applications) that they constantly return to are more likely to be patient.

    Quite apart from that there are other issues including the notion that young people treat shopping as a social function and have less expendable income so might be less likely to buy online and risk forgetting to send items back. It never fails to amaze that so many retailers are so reluctant to market their clothes towards people with the most money, particularly online where there are so many good, practical reasons to do so. My mother is in her late 50s, has a busy career and is bored of shopping on the high street and that means she’s a returning customer on a vast array of websites.

  3. Grace says:

    I disagree. Youth is the first trimester of your life, middle age is the second trimester and old age is the last trimester. The longest-lived group in the US are college-educated Asian-American females, average life expectancy of 96. That means middle age starts at 32 for us. For the rest, it starts earlier.

    It’s not surprising that older women buy more clothes online. As others have pointed out, we have less time to shop at brick and mortar stores.

    In a recession, when recreational shopping is in decline, people buy only when they have a need. Why do we need new clothes? Because our bodies or our lifestyles have changed. Target body changes after childbirth and menopause or while we shape up through exercise.

  4. Denise S says:

    Thanks for this, it’s right up the alley of my target market. Standard and Poors likes to be more genteel and call the over-35 woman the “forever-39 woman.” 25 year olds being middle-aged? Maybe in medieval times. Also the two biggies in this market, JNY Group and Liz Claiborne, Inc., have bought up so many companies over the past 20 or so years that they’ve both amassed millions of dollars in credit debt. In 2009 Liz Claiborne, Inc had revenue of nearly $4 billion and only needed 1 billion more to break even. Something tells me the wide-ranging offerings to appeal to the masses may not be the best. (However, LIZ stock has tripled in the past 6 months…so too bad I didn’t buy.) I do think that the fashion industry is very set in its ways by delineating woman age (under 35 and 35 and up) and size ranges (00-12, maybe 14 and 12 or 14 to 22).

  5. Kathleen says:

    I disagree. Youth is the first trimester of your life, middle age is the second trimester and old age is the last trimester.

    This is an interesting perspective. In the West, the cultural mindset doesn’t define lifespan in spans of triads in exactly this same way. We see the beginning (birth) and the end (typical age at death) and define the midpoint as middle-aged. It is tertiary in that there are three points but I wonder if trimester sectioning is more typical in Asia, perhaps a cultural difference? The author of this article I cited is also Asian. Triads make more sense along a developmental continuum. One stage being infancy through childhood (20 years), then adulthood (+/- 35 years), then easing into being aged (20 years). Regardless of the cultural paradigm of one’s primary readers, 25-45 is weighted toward the front end of the middle trimester.

    Breaking it down into trimesters would make me -officially- old. Ugh. No baby boomer is going to like that. Haven’t you heard? We’ve defined 40 as the new 30! 50 is the new 40! I like this new definition much better, I’m getting younger every year.

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