For about five years I've been wandering around delusional. With nearly the same confidence as knowing the sun will rise tomorrow, I’ve believed that specialty retailer Chico’s “gets it.” I've harbored notions this retailer admires, honors, and exalts Baby Boomer women. I might have even argued that Chico’s is the paradigmatic fashion merchandiser for Boomer women, a mega-success story causing much envy and mimicry among competitors Gap and J. Jill.
I have been so convinced of this delusion that I've often told inquiring news reporters about Chico's. For example, during a long and rambling interview with Bob Moos of the Dallas Morning News, I offered up Chico’s as the Boomer fashion retail brand by which other similar companies could be judged.
Although Bob didn’t quote me on that point, he did explore this phenomenon with others he interviewed:
Specialty retailers are coming to their aid, selling fashionable clothing to women who fall somewhere between stick-thin waifs and mature matrons. It's been called "Boomer chic."
The biggest success story is Chico’s, which has mastered ageless retailing,” said Candace Corlett, a principal at WSL Strategic Retail. “Chico’s is smart enough not to mention age. It talks about ‘looser-fitting clothes that are trendy but not embarrassing.’”
Begun as a folk-art shop, Chico’s now operates more than 500 stores. The company exceeded $1 billion in sales for the first time last year and has had eight straight years of double-digit increases in comparable-store sales.
Chico’s success is drawing others into its niche. The latest is Gap Inc.'s Forth & Towne, which focuses on women over 35. The company is testing the concept in five stores and plans to open 25 more over the next two years.
“It's a powerful and influential demographic,” spokeswoman Kimberly Terry said. “These are women who grew up with Gap and know the brand but who recently haven't found the style or fit they want.”
Marketing experts say the growing interest in the fiftysomething consumer proves the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And Chico’s has certainly basked in the glow from all the Boomer marketing pundits who have called attention to this merchandiser as a farsighted company:
“Smaller retail chains, including Chico's and J. Jill, are using specialty stores and catalogs to capture the $30 billion Baby-Boomer women's apparel market -- sending department stores and big apparel makers rushing to catch up.”
— St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 24, 2005, Mary Jo Feldstein
A few days ago I was visiting my neighbors Paul and Julie and noticed a Chico’s catalog. Since I’m not technically in the target market for Chico’s, I wasn’t even cognizant the company produces catalogs.
Then I started casually flipping pages. And flipping more. And backtracking and re-flipping. I became aghast, so I counted photos. In the “25th Anniversary Collections” catalog I counted sixty-two photos. Sixty-one photos depict women comfortably under 40. Most appear to be between 25 and 35. And these 61 women are platform and Photoshop perfect. Flawless. No realistic portrayals. No aging bodies. No Boomers. I might as well have been flipping through Cosmo.
And why is there this one exception in a 40-page catalog visually dedicated to younger women? I can only surmise it’s because Debbie Phelps wore Chico’s clothing during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games when she was the intriguing star of emotional cutaway shots demonstrating a proud mother’s joy.
Equally proud of a “major get,” this endorsement, Chico’s disseminated a press release in early September with Debbie’s effusive comments (or those written by the PR department):
“I am thrilled to partner with Chico’s," says Debbie Phelps. “This relationship couldn't be more perfect; I've been one of Chico’s biggest fans for years. Every time I have a function or go to an International competition for Michael, I build my outfits using Chico’s Travelers, print tops and jewelry. I love Chico’s because it’s versatile, comfortable, perfect for travel and I always look and feel great.”
Chico’s couldn’t be more pleased:
“As an educator, single mother and her son's biggest champion, Debbie has been an inspiration to us, and to our customers all over the world. We look forward to evolving the wonderful relationship we already have with Debbie,” states Michele Cloutier, Chico’s Brand President.
I don’t know how female Boomer marketing experts will react to this consternating news, but I feel used. Yes, I’m a Boomer man, and you won’t find me trying on dresses at Chico’s, but I’ve been boasting about the company for years, clearly out of touch with reality.
Further, I have “catalog issues.” One of my favorite retailers, Recreational Equipment Incorporated, has been overjoyed to attribute nearly 30% of its annual sales to Boomers, but you'll need a magnifying glass to find one or two gray-haired Boomers emblazoning its many catalogs. More than 90% of REI's catalog models are probably south of 35.
My company has produced many catalogs, quite successfully. And we think about creative direction in terms of target audiences.
For example, I directed creation of more than 15 annual catalogs targeting elementary school teachers, and we portrayed real teachers. We traveled nationwide to photograph our client's customers to capture reality: middle-age teachers; teachers who are not fashion models; heavy-set teachers; even young and perky teachers. We sprinkled a few “aspirational models” throughout the catalogs, but we stayed mindful of our market.
Strictly judging from the Chico’s catalog, which I’ve now dog-eared, this company isn’t marketing to contemporaries of Debbie Phelps. Maybe they just appreciate getting a slice of her justly deserved celebrity. She's a lonely emissary for a generation in which more than half the women have already passed 50.
If Chico’s truly is a Boomer-focused cataloger and specialty retailer, there would be more Boomer women throughout the catalog who appear to be of similar age to Debbie Phelps, with realistic proportions. You’d find a little glimmering gray hair. And maybe some facial wisdom lines.
My apologies to those I’ve misled about Chico’s through my many conversations with reporters.