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The Weary Consumer

Posted by: Diane Brady on August 9, 2007

We’re not flocking to the mall right now. At first, I thought the instinct was limited to child-centric Gen Xers like myself—people who are willing to pay more for organic apples and gas to get out of town (Hey, who wants to fly?) than a perishable hippie-style dress. But the latest retail numbers suggest that even teens aren’t rushing to the stores, either. Companies like Pacific Sunwear and Wet Seal just posted disappointing sales numbers for the quarter.

So what’s going on? I don’t think we can blame it all on the soft housing market (“Julie, we’re cutting your back-to-school allowance because our adjustable rate mortgage has gone through the roof.”) Every brand has its ebb and flow, obviously, but I think mainstream brands will increasingly find it tough to win big numbers.

The emphasis in fashion, at least, is increasingly on being unique. When everyone can own any brand anywhere, thanks to Web shopping, the challenge is to find the stuff that’s not in the usual chain stores. I know several far more fashionable women than me who do the bulk of their shopping on eBay. That’s right. eBay. They’re looking for one-of-a-kind items that aren’t going to show up at Banana Republic.

One of our interns, Maha Atal, talks about her generation’s move away from the mainstream, too. (Check out the column she wrote at Brown)

Retail numbers do say something about the state of the overall economy, but they can also point to deeper underlying trends that are just starting to emerge. Companies like Gap find they’re hitting a wall with growth in the U.S. We don’t need more stores per city block. People are finding other ways to feel fashionable, and unique.

Reader Comments


August 9, 2007 10:19 AM

Its a question of quality. I am so fed up with every thing I buy falling apart after a few uses. Even the higher end stores I shop at, such as Talbots and JJill seem to be cutting corners on quality. After a few washings, even in cold, the clothes look like crap, the buttons fall off, the hems come undone. I would rather save my money for vacation or better yet, retirement.


August 9, 2007 11:14 AM

Interesting article. This article points out one main problem with retail clothing (for the lack of better term) industry. I think this has been the case for the longest time. All fashions get old as soon as everyone adopts them. The only difference is that in old days there weren't many other options. The new brands only emerged after one was fully adopted. These days, everyone wants to come up with their own design or put their spin on existing one. This makes it even tougher environment for any retail companies to survive for too long in this industry.

Maha Atal's article is good too.


August 9, 2007 12:00 PM

Amen, I have been purchasing Hagger Slacks for years and in the last 3 years I have found they seem to have quality sewing problems After a few months. I wash them under the label guide lines. I think it is the product is made in Mexico and the inspection and thread is not done correctly.


August 9, 2007 12:10 PM

Another factor may be that heavy consumption just doesn't fit the zeitgeist of the times. When you're driving in a hybrid to the latest Al Gore-inspired concert, you don't want to look like the price tags have just come off your all-too-identifiable clothes.

You either want to look truly cool or that your priorities extend beyond the latest cropped vest at Gap. Even sporting Product (Red) is seen by some folks I know as a little tacky -- aimed at those who feel a need to advertise their concern for Africa, instead of doing something about it.


August 9, 2007 3:46 PM

With so many great ways of shopping online - I don't head out to
stores, as often. I know what clothes I want to buy and the brands I

I recently discovered Shop It To Me. It is an online personalized search
service that essentially is an automated personal shopper that hunts the
web for the latest sales on my favorite brands.

Here’s what they say…..Shop It To Me alerts shoppers when their
favorite brands of clothing go on sale. It is the first and only
service where shoppers can specify what items they want to know go on
sale and will then monitor more than 50 leading retailers spanning
more than 500 top brands. The free service is akin to a bargain-
minded personal shopper that scours and presents newly reduced
merchandise of just the brands and sizes specified in one single
email. Shop It To Me automates personalized searches for sale items,
saving shoppers time, money, and the frustration of an item selling out.

I love it, and I have a new wrap dress that I got for an amazing price.


August 9, 2007 6:21 PM

Although the powers that be continue to deny the existence of real inflation and the impending danger from sub-prime loans and the wholesale printing of money, I think that the public is, at last, waking up to the reality of impending financial disaster for most of us. It's hard to care too much about the latest fashions or mall hopping when you're not quite sure that you can keep a roof over your head, feed the kids, pay the doctor bills and heat the house this winter.


August 9, 2007 9:47 PM

Maybe the answer is that credit and money management incompetence is coming home with impact after all? Maybe the 5x prices at the organic food store and the 3x price hikes at the coffee shop do have an impact? Another factor is that the AMT tax is starting to tear into the NE and west coast wallets. All of those big property tax bills and local tax write offs in high tax states are not longer write offs.


August 9, 2007 10:29 PM

Wha? I mean, Wha? I can't believe your story is based on sales at two outlets. The National Retail Federation (NRF) says back to school spending should jump by a healthy 6.9 percent over last year and top $18 billion in total sales. The Conference Board reports that consumer confidence hit a four-year high and, retail sales jumped 3.1 percent in July; the biggest increase in four months, according to a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Child-centric Gen Xers like yourself should learn how to report.


August 9, 2007 10:38 PM

Actually, the numbers were disappointing on several fronts. The back-to-school season might pick up but July was a disappointment all around.

Want some other teen-oriented chains that were down? Try The Limited (down 3 percent), American Eagle Outfitters (a six percent decline) and Abercrombie & Fitch (down four percent). And then there's Macy's and several other mainstream retailers that target, well, everyone.


August 10, 2007 4:02 AM

Let's be honest here: Consumers are not buying because they are broke or can't use the housing ATM machine any longer. This is the US, people, and consumers don't stop shopping because of ideology, weather patters, or fashion issues. They stop shopping only when run out o money. That's all Americans do, shop for useless stuff from their new master China, eat junk food, and watch brainwashing TV! The American economy is showing signs of trouble and things will get a lot worse.

Brandon W

August 10, 2007 7:35 AM

The U.S. has had a negative savings rate for a couple of years now. I.e., we are spending more than we make. There comes a point where consumers can no longer spend more than they make and must start paying back the debt - plus interest. Not only does spending need to be cut back to "only" 100% of income, but it has to be further cut back to start paying off the debt and interest. The consumer can not float this economy anymore.

I would also like to tip my hat to Maha Atal on her article. Very good piece.


August 10, 2007 5:15 PM

Affluenza . . .


August 11, 2007 9:59 PM

As a student - I know that I can find items from a few years ago that are still fashionable (basics, like jeans or plain tank tops) at thrift stores in excellent to new quality for half to a quarter of what it sells for at normal stores. I can then buy a few specialty items to supplement my outfit for maybe a little more than usual, and still make a net savings. When I'm going to have to pay student loans back for graduate school - because society doesn't value non-MA degrees that aren't business or education anymore enough to reward with a satisfying salaried job - I'll have eased life for myself a little.


August 12, 2007 9:52 AM

I haven't shopped at a mall in over a year. As a 23 year old, I am truly bored with what they are selling. If you go into the stores, year after year, it is the same thing--expect with a subtle twist each season. What's more, the prices keep going up. As a money-conscious young professional, I'd rather use my dollars for investments in myself like yes, organic high-quality food, and more long-term investments like continuing education or something else that will bring me returns in the future. Consumerism, at least for me and my peers, seems to be on the way out. We're just not interested anymore.

Diana Huiu

August 12, 2007 4:20 PM

The truth is that we live in such an abundance of products, and mainly low quality products, that the decision making process in a buying activity has become very complex. So people are doing the most possible to simplify it. This is why they are buying on-line.

People will continue to buy things, and in a cheap, but risky environment like the on-line buying, I think that they will buy even more than they do now. They will prefer to buy the same product from two shops just to be sure that at least one of the choises is good.

So producers do not have to worry, but retailers should look closer to the on-line business.


August 12, 2007 5:54 PM

"One of the interesting paradoxes of being a teenager is trying to be unique but not wanting to be singled out in a peer group," says Whitfield.

Every generation has the same problem. You want to find clothes or be fashionable but fashion changes periodically. Fashion right now whether a twenty-something doesn't acknowledge themselves as "hip" do uhm, want to appear hip. Why is Addidas making a comeback? It's gone mainstream. Addidas actually did well of all places, in China around a decade ago. Now the Y Geners are just being pushed fashion that came from the 80's and 70s. Tarantino's films have this retro ethos. So the new generation don't really have much to say or even have a fashion identity. They rely on fashion trends created in the 70's and 80's.

This is Businessweek isn't it? The writer ought to understand you'll have business cycles. We had the S&L Loan mess and now it's the sub-prime.

An interesting note about being "cool" is the fact that the Hybrid Prius does better than a hybrid version of a Camry. Why? People do want to show they own Pruis as an immediate iconic commitment to environmental responsbility.

The zeitgeist is different but as the saying goes, there's nothing new under the sun.


December 22, 2009 3:19 AM

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