BrainTrust Query: The Boomer Apparel Opportunity

Apr 19, 2010

Commentary by Bill Emerson, President, Emerson Advisors

Through a special arrangement,
presented here for discussion is an excerpt from a current article from the Emerson

According to The NPD Group, women’s apparel rang up over $100 billion last
year. So who’s buying this apparel? According the Census Bureau, there are
over 105 million females in America between the ages of 20 and 75. The Boomer
portion of this population (born between 1945 and 1965) represent slightly
over 40 percent of the total. With an average age of 55, this is unquestionably
the segment with the largest amount of disposable income. Obviously a clear
target of apparel manufacturers and retailers, right? For four-wall retailers
in particular, this should be a prime demographic.


According to a recent survey by, a leading online community
for successful women over 50, over two-thirds of the respondents stated that
they are purchasing their apparel online, with 13 percent of them buying online
exclusively. The primary driver of this move – lousy service. Over 84 percent
found four-wall sales associates to be "indifferent, inexperienced, invisible,
or downright rude while 32 percent perceive an age bias from younger associates." As
Stephen Reily, CEO of VibrantNation said, "The irony is that these women
are highly desirable clothing customers with not only great spending power
but time."

Then there’s the merchandise itself. When you think about recent fashion trends
– hip-hugger pencil leg denim, bare midriff tops, etc., it’s hard to imagine
that the Boomer demographic was a prime consideration. There’s no question
that the Boomer women are extraordinarily fit for their age, but hey, gravity
always wins in the end.

At least one four-wall retailer seems to recognize this opportunity, albeit
coming from the other end of the spectrum. Talbots, the Hingham, MA specialty
retailer recently announced that it was reworking its merchandise assortment
to focus on "women 35 and older." It appears that it had conducted
an internal survey of its over-65 customers who opined that the current assortment
was for someone "older." (Ouch!) Reaching out to a younger customer
while retaining an existing customer is no small task, one that Talbots tried
(unsuccessfully) once before. The good news is that they are in solid financial
shape and are now led by a well-respected veteran of the women’s apparel market,
Trudy Sullivan. It will be interesting to see how this works out.

The reality is that, while the Boomer population is definitely spending less,
they are still the largest market out there with the highest absolute disposable
income. This is a big opportunity in an otherwise grim environment.

Discussion Questions: What’s missing in current offerings for women Boomers?
Is any age bias from younger store associates at apparel retailers a serious
problem in reaching women Boomers? Which retailers are doing a best job targeting
women Boomers?

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12 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: The Boomer Apparel Opportunity"

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Dick Seesel
11 years 28 days ago

Apparel chains do seem to be putting more emphasis into customer service, in-store “personal shoppers” and better training as post-recession strategies to drive loyalty. (This may not be the case in big-box stores.) But the “average” consumer was most recently measured at size 14, which was considered a “plus size” once upon a time. No doubt that the aging population and other lifestyle changes have led to this change, but it’s not reflected in the typical size range found in most department and apparel specialty stores.

No wonder that Baby Boomers are frustrated with the merchandise content they find in the mall: It’s designed for a consumer size range that doesn’t reflect reality, and it tends to chase a younger “psychographic” mentality as well.

Len Lewis
Len Lewis
11 years 28 days ago

Boomers may have the largest disposable incomes, but will they spend it on clothes? It’s a bit ridiculous for a man to be answering a question on behalf of women. However, that never stopped me before.

Women in business want to look good–and fashionable. But from personal contact with women “of a certain age,” including my wife, I can tell you they are sick and tired of paying outrageous prices for apparel of questionable quality. Quite often the only thing that separates something purchased at Lord & Taylor and Target is the price–and perhaps they were made on different sides of the same factory in China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc, etc.

The in-store experience, which seems to be the buzzword these days, is spotty. At its best, it’s not enough to warrant the price tag. I don’t expect it to get much better, which is why online shopping will remain a prime attraction for apparel dollars–as long as they maintain a good return policy.

Marge Laney
11 years 28 days ago

As a bull’s eyes of this target group, I can honestly say that it’s very difficult to find what I think is great fashion that fits. Gravity is winning, as the author so adeptly points out, no matter how hard I try and the best looking fashions are usually not in my bag when exiting most stores.

If we’re such a gold mine, retailers should make an effort to meet our fit challenges. Who’s doing a good job? White House | Black Market, Ann Taylor, and Nordstrom get my vote, but with the exception of Nordstrom, am I really their target? I don’t think so, and that brings up another problem for retailers when trying to figure out us boomer women. Some of us will go kicking and screaming into old age and would rather go naked (perish the thought actually) than shop the granny stores. As far as service is concerned, apparel retail service is spotty at best, but WH|BM does a pretty good job.

Anne Howe
11 years 28 days ago
What is really needed in the fashion business is appropriate versions of trend fashion that is styled to fit women over 50. Let’s face it, adding an inch or two at the waist isn’t going to materially change the look of most styles. Also, more retail associates should be taught (maybe they are?) but more importantly, be willing to help shoppers put current looks together based on the reality of the individual. I find only Nordstrom associates to be actually willing to work with me on this. Most others are just loading up fitting rooms without any consultation as to what lines run small, what’s more forgiving or flattering to the body type standing in front of them. Thus, the frustration in the fitting room continues to rise and women bail out of that program pretty quickly. I find magazines helpful, especially when they show trends for 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Those pages are go-to guides for online shopping. Online retailers spend time organizing the “fit information” both from manufacturers and other shoppers in… Read more »
Roger Saunders
11 years 28 days ago
Answered by a Man, who listens to the “Blonde Bombshell” of 36 years, as well as listens closely to the Attitudes and Behavior of nearly 2,500 Women 45-64 each and every month in the Consumer Intentions & Actions (CIA) Survey. Those women love fashion and design, but life patterns pull them in directions that they now feel they have greater control–and, they are exercising it. Look at them from a demographic standpoint, beyond the ‘Boomer’ look, because they truly need to be segmented further. When we view women, 45 – 64 as a group, they have a higher incidence of being married (60% vs. 49% of the General Population), and Divorced/Separated (18% vs. 12% of the General Population). They have average Household Incomes of $56,000, which parallels the General Population. The kids are gone, with 82% saying that no children under 18 are living in the household. These adults are practical, because they have the confidence to be so. When asked about their strategy in buying clothes, 84% say the “Usually/Only” buy clothes when on… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
11 years 28 days ago

Yes the female “boomers” have more disposable income than any other previous generation…and perhaps more than even the younger ones coming up behind them. The market is already demanding change in traditional apparel styles and sizing. Those retailers and manufacturers that respond the fastest will be the most successful in the coming years. This has been proven by so many segments of retail over the years.

Remember the department store segment, for instance. How many have failed or are on life support as we speak because they didn’t adapt to the changing market> This apparel shift is only one more case study.

Li McClelland
Li McClelland
11 years 28 days ago

The trend in women’s wear–both for work and for weekend play–has been moving ever more towards the casual, and that market seems to be pretty well served both online and in retail stores. But the area which my boomer friends and I find *very* challenging and frustrating on an ongoing basis is trying to find sharp special occasion wear/evening wear at a reasonable price. (Weddings of co-workers and of your own kids and friends’ kids; significant anniversary celebrations; “important” birthday parties, etc.) If one is attending senior prom there are lots of backless, slinky choices. But, if you happen to be out of high school and need something classy and elegant to wear to your boss’ favorite charity fundraising affair–not so much.

Lee Peterson
11 years 28 days ago

Marge Laney nails it above. It’s all about FIT. Being a boomer, knowing multitudes of boomer women, that’s ALL I hear. “Nothing fits me.” The reasons for Chico’s success a few years back? Fit. Sure, the styling, patterns and accessories were pretty darn good, but what kept women going back was the fit. Chico’s became the only place for boomer women over 45 to go find something (anything?) semi-fashionable that they could actually wear.

More recently, Ann Taylor, J.Jill, Talbots and others have made moves in that direction, but it doesn’t appear (judging from sales and shrinking store numbers) that they’ve totally got it nailed.

It’ll be interesting to see who, in that very crowded landscape, actually steps up and creates a fit spectrum that works for the center of the belle curve woman who is over 50 vs the “aspirational” New York executive who is 35. Having that kind of guts will be a huge pull back to growth for the company that differentiates by doing so.

Ryan Mathews
11 years 28 days ago

Isn’t the right answer a blend of providing assistance for age appropriate style, helping a generation of people that have always been fashion leaders to learn how to become fashion followers and to introduce a sense of respect for age and the individual; i.e., a redefinition or additional definition of what it means to be both mature and attractive?

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn
11 years 28 days ago

As a long-time and cult-like customer of Eileen Fisher clothing both from their stores, in dept. stores (e.g., Bloomingdale’s), and online (via their own and other websites), this story made me laugh. My local EF store manager told me at the recent EF managers’ meeting that the brand was trying to skew younger–that their average buyers were over 40 and they feel they’ve been missing the younger age cohorts. So now I see more tailoring, more colorful palettes, and more revealing styles like tank tops and deep v-necks.

Perhaps Boomers will buy into the new styles–I’m mixed about it–but the brand wants to cater to more than Boomers. We’ll see how this reverse scenario plays out….

Kim Barrington
Kim Barrington
11 years 28 days ago
Why has it taken so long for business to figure this out? Boomer women have been complaining about it for awhile. I’ve stooped to purchasing clothing from junior departments as long as the FIT is there. They are the only “stylish” clothes out there, but the quality is questionable and the FIT isn’t quite there. But shopping in the women’s department is like shopping my grandmother’s closet, especially at Macy’s, Talbots, and Ann Taylor (is getting better). Banana Republic used to be my go to store but has screwed up their formula now, so unless I absolutely have to have something, I’m not buying. This is why the shoe departments of stores are doing so well. The shoe departments are crazy creative and there doesn’t appear to be an ageist bias going on there. Something cool and comfortable for everyone. This is truly one of the easiest things ever to get right and yet so many are failing. J.Crew may be getting it right with such a broad base demographic. But Mickey Drexler has always… Read more »
Cathy Hotka
11 years 28 days ago

A quick review of the answers here shows not a single apologist for the apparel industry. The folks who create clothes just don’t seem to care that sizes are totally unpredictable, that service is miserable, and that their styles (low-rise jeans, anyone?) won’t fit half the population. Not even a potential and obvious uptick in sales will tempt these folks to change their ways.


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