Ann Taylor Plans To Cozy Up To Boomer Broads

Ann Taylor announced yet another quarter of disappointing results, but says it has a big plan for bouncing back: The women's specialty retailer confirmed earlier reports that it will turn a new concept for Baby Boomer women into a billion-dollar business.

The company also announced that Robert Luzzi will join the company as its new chief marketing officer, reporting to Kay Krill, president and CEO. Luzzi, who had been at New York & Co. as well as Estee Lauder, will "oversee all aspects of marketing, visual, and in-store environment for the company's brands."

On the one hand, the "new concept" news isn't that surprising--many retail experts believe that the 76 million Baby Boomers represent one of the most affluent yet neglected markets going.

On the other, it's a risky move. Ann Taylor has been plagued by a persistent inability to turn its Loft division around. For the second quarter, comparable store sales fell 3.1% at Ann Taylor, and at its Loft division, comparable store sales declined 10.8%.



In addition, other retailers--most recently Gap Inc., which recently pulled the plug on its disappointing Forth & Towne concept--have failed miserably in their efforts to target 40-plus women. And even some of the strongest players in the Boomer space, including Chico's and Coldwater Creek, have seen some softness in sales. Talbots, which also serves this market, along with its J. Jill division, has been positively hammered.

Still, some experts think Ann Taylor may have what it takes to crack the code. "It's a natural," says Carol Orsborn, co-chair of Fleishman-Hillard's FH Boom, "because it's already a brand Boomer women trust." While women have drifted away from the brand, "these women like being directly marketed to, and they'll be inclined to give it a try."

But the devil is always in the details. Many of the stores that best cater to Boomer women are essentially department stores, ranging from Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus to L.L. Bean. "She understands [that] in stores like these, not everything applies to her, so when she goes in, she's on a mission. But the promise of a boutique is different. A boutique has to get who you are and make you feel like you belong--you have to trust that everything in the store is the kind of thing you could wear." In other words, a few what-were-they-thinking cocktail dresses, and it's lights out.

One problem, she says, is that previous attempts have tried to differentiate chic women from those that might wear the comfy, elastic-waistband pants that have been such a hit for Chico's. "But most Boomer women I know have both kinds of clothes," she says. "Comfort is very important to this audience."

Other experts think sizing will also be extremely important. "Women aged 50-plus are senior-level, working people," says Marti Barletta, author of PrimeTime Women and founder of TrendSight Group, Winnetka, Ill. "They need clothes that are attractive and make them look great. But Ann Taylor needs to recognize that the average size of American women is now a 14, and among this audience, it is certainly larger. Whoever figures out how to serve this market will have a huge business opportunity."

Orsborn's research divides Boomer women into three categories. The first is a period of fierce brand loyalty. Next comes a period of determined rebellion, where women deliberately turn their back on brands they have loved in the past. "Many Boomer women have been in this stage for a long time, now," she says. Stage 3 represents a period of brand reconciliation, she says, "and if Ann Taylor can do it right, I think women will be willing to come back and try the brand again."

For its part, Ann Taylor isn't saying much--beyond tapping Mark Mendelson, formerly the chief merchandising officer for Jones New York, as its president, and saying that it expects the Boomer concept to become a billion-dollar business.

"We believe that the boomer market we are targeting has been the most significantly underserved and represents a huge opportunity for us," the company says in its release. "Our approach to satisfying her needs will be unique, and we are on track for an initial launch next fall."

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