Even Sex and the City clotheshorse Sarah Jessica Parker is feeling the angst of her generation. Born one year outside of the Baby Boomer demographic, the new mother is — in her offscreen life — trying to find the right balance between what fashion magazines dictate and what feels right. In recent comments to Vogue, she said of seductively low-cut jeans: “For me? It's not right.” But of course, she's doesn't want to give up all things trendy. “…I want to feel like somebody would think I looked sexy or attractive.”

Though you're not likely to find her browsing the racks at Chico's, Parker's views aren't much different from the average 40- or 50-something woman. It's no secret: Boomers are aging and almost certainly are seeing their body types change along with their apparel tastes. But addressing such complex needs has only recently become en vogue for the retail industry.

Mature woman with deep pockets had been forsaken in the past decade as retailers worshiped Gen X and Gen Yers and precocious adolescents. A myriad of new, teen-focused mall stores pushed skin-tight tops and low-slung jeans. Even standbys like the Gap and Ann Taylor veered too young not long ago and saw the result in lost customers — and investors. Department stores — long the domain of older women — were also accused of stocking too much product aimed at younger customers.

“These women have less to shop for at the mall, so they buy less,” says Candace Corlett, principal at WSL Strategic Retail. “It's not because they don't want to buy, but because there are fewer things to tempt them.”

That's why those chains that have figured out what Boomer women want are performing much better than their male counterparts. Talbot's, J. Jill, Eileen Fisher, Ann Taylor and Chico's continue to expand. The Chico's chain, with 415 stores, has grown to $531 million in sales in its fiscal year ended Jan. 31, from $106 million five years ago. Not that these retailers haven't been immune from fiscal conservatism, but they generally have held up better than many other specialty retailers.

Boomers — the 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964 — are and will continue to be the most influential set of consumers in coming years. Though they represent 38 percent of the population, they account for 55 percent of discretionary spending. “People over 50 are a huge target audience that also have discretionary income to spend,” Corlett says. Americans spend $90 billion a year alone on apparel and a significant portion of that is spent by Boomer-age women.

DEEP POCKETS

The last time the Census Bureau studied Boomer women back in 1990, they were between the ages of 26 and 44. And about 30 percent had children under six, and one-third had children aged six to 17. Thirteen years later, the youngest of the kids in the latter category should be out of the house, leaving Mom, who is also among the first generation of women to enjoy the spoils of the feminist movement, with an empty nest and freed-up resources. “Women in this age range don't have to spread their budget across a growing family, so they spend money on themselves,” says Pam Danzinger, president of Unity Marketing.

Where do they shop? A recent Banc of America Securities survey showed that women aged 25 to 45 have an independent streak and are more likely than previous generations to shop at both traditional retailers and discounters. Many respondents said they frequent Target as well as AnnTaylor, Kohl's as well as J. Jill. Women also report finding more sophisticated clothes at Sears and JC Penney than in the past as these stores reach out to that demographic.

“Retail today is about choices and understanding lifestyle,” says Cheryl Dougherty, spokeswoman for PREIT.

And, says consultant Corlett: “No one wants to be associated with aging.” Many do weight training and aerobics to stay in shape.

Many Boomer woman are looking for “relaxed, figure-flattering clothes designed for easy care,” says Lexi Winkles, a spokeswoman for Chico's. To attract its on-the-go clientele, Chico's holds “wardrobe parties” in which a small group of women shop together for two hours at a Chico's store. Guests get a 10 percent discount on their purchases during the party and the organizer, or hostess, receives an additional $25 discount.

Talbots, known for classic styles, is popular with Boomers. “Our shopper does have more of an investment mindset” and is looking for wardrobe staples that stand the test of time, says Margie Myers, spokeswoman for Talbots. Myers says the typical shopper has to balance a family and her career.

Generally, merchandise is “edited and focused” so shoppers can choose outfits easily. Like Chico's, Talbots too offers a service where customers can shop by appointment. Some 23,000 women have tried the service.

Eileen Fisher, at the higher end of Boomer chains, also aims to be a provider of comfortable, timeless wardrobe staples — with style. Less trend-driven merchandise “resonates with that demographic,” says Heather McGinley, Eileen Fisher spokeswoman. “They don't want a disposable trend.” Clothes that are washable and travel well appeal to this on-the-go generation. Most Eileen Fisher stores are in affluent suburban and urban markets, where Boomers tend to dominate.

Shopping-center owners are coming up with ways to better serve Boomer women. Malls, while losing some of their luster to competing shopping venues, still draw the masses, but, says PREIT's Dougherty, an offensive strategy is needed to maintain the interest of important shoppers like Boomer women.

The REIT tries to balance its tenant composition to reflect that and organizes events to attract this powerful demographic. Loyalty programs, fashion shows and mall-walking programs are among the lures. “In a sea of choices, choose us” is what the mall-owner should be saying, she says.

Traditional department stores draw in Boomers, but the mix of tenants catering to that demographic should include the aforementioned specialty retail chains and, increasingly, Coldwater Creek. After establishing itself as a popular cataloguer of comfortable women's clothing, Coldwater Creek began opening stores this year. To date, there are 47 stores, and the company plans to have 65 by year's end, with another 80 planned to open in 2004 and 2005, says David Gunter, a Coldwater spokesman.

BOOMER APPEAL

Boomer women like the convenience of town-square centers, says Gunter. Coldwater Creek has placed about half of its stores in lifestyle centers. “Our stores are clustered with upscale brands like Talbots, Chico's and Pottery Barn,” says Gunter.

Linda Reynolds, director of retail services at shopping mall giant Taubman Centers, says the company aims to add more sit-down restaurants to its tenant base. Meantime, it has redesigned many of the center courts at its malls to provide more comfortable seating. Tables and chairs look like they belong in a hotel lobby, she says. Reynolds says that from lighting to flowers, the company has “tried to recreate amenities to appeal to Boomers in particular.”

Everyone is beginning to see the potential of the demographic, and that's making the market more crowded. Though they're still a favorite among Boomers, Chico's, for example, is seeing relative growth become more difficult. Chico's stock took a dip in recent weeks after it reported an 18 percent jump in fiscal first-quarter earnings, disappointing analysts who expected even more profit. The retailer is now in the early stages of diversifying. It recently bought up-and-coming chain The White House for $90 million, and is also starting up a new concept called Pazo aimed at women between 25 and 40.

As even Parker, who was born in 1965, is shying away from too-revealing clothes, the industry should be taking note. The demand for a happy medium between trendy and tasteful will only increase and companies who figure out what women want will be handsomely rewarded.

WHO'S GROWING?

AnnTaylor, J. Jill, Christopher & Banks and Chico's are among the most popular specialty apparel destinations for Boomer women. Of the three, Chico's boasts the highest sales per square foot, driven largely by a unique incentive program for sales people that encourages higher transactions.
AnnTaylor
Total Stores 2003:
350
Avg. Store Size: 5,564 sq. ft.
Sales Per Sq. Ft.: $426
Sales Growth 2003: 13.7%
Real Estate Strategy: AnnTaylor plans on opening 71 new stores in 2003, translating into 11 percent square footage growth, including AnnTaylor and AnnTaylor Loft stores. For the first time, the retailer will open both concepts in the same malls.
Christopher & Banks
Total Stores 2003:
482
Avg. Store Size: 3,400 sq. ft.
Sales Per Sq. Ft.: $253
Sales Growth 2003: 23%
Real Estate Strategy: Christopher & Banks will use its $25 million capital expenditure budget to open 100 new stores this year, including its plus-sized format, C.J. Banks. The retailer plans to grow its square footage by 20 percent annually in 2004 and 2005.
J. Jill
Total Stores 2003:
89
Avg. Store Size: 4,200 sq. ft.
Sales Per Sq. Ft.: $410
Sales Growth 2003: 17.9% (including catalog business)
Real Estate Strategy: J.Jill will open 35 stores this year, down from its original plan to add 40 new stores. New stores will also feature a smaller footprint.
Chico's
Total Stores 2003:
409
Avg. Store Size: 1,830 sq. ft.
Sales Per Sq. Ft.: $660
Sales Growth 2003: 40.5%
Real Estate Strategy: Chico's, which plans three years of 25% annual square footage growth, is most likely to open 60-65 new stores in strip centers adjacent to upscale regional malls by year-end 2004.
Sources: Company data; Wachovia Securities, SG Cowan; U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray