Gen-X Pinches Apparel Purchasing

December 14, 2005 | By Valerie Seckler

Call it the land of missed opportunity.

It’s the terra firma of the thirtysomething crowd, Generation X, the only American generation to spend less on apparel in the 12 months ended in October than it did a year earlier—a 4 percent drop, or $16.4 billion versus $17.1 billion, according to The NPD Group research firm. Apparel marketers are simply failing to retain the Xers’ attention, let alone boost their dollar take from a group that’s placing a rising priority on homes and families.

It’s not that the Xers aren’t ripe for the picking. The generation, which numbers around 48 million people, ages 28 to 38, are in the throes of forming and expanding households and families, a pair of realities that promotes values such as functionality, practicality, affordability—and a sense of style.

A fiercely independent style sensibility, marked by a diversity of individual choices, characterizes members of the group, though, making them tricky to cater to in fashion. “There’s less of a need to conform to a given style, just because it’s fashionable,” J. Walker Smith, president of consumer research company Yankelovich, said of the Xer mind-set, which also characterizes some people in their early 40s, considered trailing-edge Baby Boomers. “There will be trendy Xers, but [the group] feels more permission to do as they will.”

About three-quarters, or 74 percent, of the X generation segment described as “driven,” in research published in November by Yankelovich, said people should be free to look and dress the way they want, whether others like it or not, as did 77 percent of Xers deemed “at capacity.” The former cohort is ambitious and expressed an interest in style; the latter is seeking simplicity, control and a comfortable environment. Both groups, as identified for various Yankelovich clients, had a mean age of 32, while 57 percent of the driven segment and 67 percent of the at-capacity segment were married.

In addition, almost half of the driven group, 47 percent, said it was very important that others saw them as having a sense of style, as did one-third, or 33 percent, of those at capacity.

In contrast to the Boomers, who, “at one point or another, were dictated to as to what’s good taste, the Xers are more ‘show me what’s out there and let me make up my mind,’” said Raul Martinez, chief executive officer of ad agency AR, whose clients include Dolce & Gabbana, Versace and Escada.

Nonetheless, said Lois Huff, a senior vice president at Retail Forward, specializing in consumer behavior, “Most of the stores going after Xers are bland. To some extent, Xers have been expected to inherit Baby Boomer-targeted stores, but those stores don’t always speak to them. They don’t reflect the Gen-X life stage.” Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, Eddie Bauer and J. Crew are among those that could fall into that category.

As a result, there’s a significant opportunity for stores to offer Xers a sense of empowerment by providing a way for them to customize their clothing choices. “The big thing is for retailers to make styles available that can be customized to reflect someone’s sense of self-expression,” Smith said.

“This is a generation that’s grown up feeling in control of things. New technologies have given Xers a sense of self-assurance.”

Whereas Boomers in their 30s were content to make well-informed choices from options presented to them, Smith said, Gen-X wants to move beyond simple self-reliance to inventing things for themselves.

While marketing executives and trend forecasters were hard pressed to name a single apparel brand that’s done a particularly good job resonating with the Xer cohort, Target and Starbucks were frequently mentioned as appealing to the group. Both market a sense of style—design at a price at Target and a lifestyle setting at Starbucks. In May, research published by NPD Fashionworld showed that the five apparel brands most popular with women in the cohort were led by Victoria’s Secret, followed by Liz Claiborne, Talbots, Jones New York and Hanes.

American Apparel rated a few mentions from marketing executives and trend forecasters as a brand with attributes that ought to appeal to the generation’s sense of corporate citizenship and taste for diverse experiences, such as the brand’s holiday pop-up store in TriBeCa, which is hosting daily spontaneous events such as ping-pong tournaments, spelling bees and dreidel spinning. Because of its mission to manufacture clothes locally, in Los Angeles, without sweatshop labor, American Apparel could click with what trend forecaster Todd A. Myers termed Gen-X’s “save-our-society” mind-set. “They are interested in brands that are responsible citizens,” said Myers, a senior consultant at Brain Reserve.

Roots of the Xers’ collective point of view may be found in childhoods often characterized by fending for one’s self, spawning what generation expert William Strauss described as a lower sense of self-esteem and specialness in the eyes of others. “The attitude becomes, ‘I don’t care what you think of me because you probably don’t approve of me anyway,’” Strauss related.

The recent cries of protest from professional basketball players over the off-the-court dress code initiated by the NBA—which frowned on the baggy denim and bling associated with hip-hop culture—is one example of this attitude, Strauss said.

Paradoxically, it turns out that Xers, who contended with rising divorce rates and latchkey childhoods, watch TV commercials, Strauss said, “more closely than others, have more openness to the efforts of advertisers” and subsequently tend to form “micro allegiances” to new brands and brand experiences.

However, marketers, including fashion brands, have not caught on.

“We have yet to see the [culture-of-invention] mind-set addressed in commercials,” Smith said. “The Boomers now in charge don’t tend to think the same way.” It’s a circumstance that recalls the way the Boomers were treated by marketers. And, as Smith pointed out, the bridging of that generation gap eventually resulted in the creation of megabrands such as Nike, MTV, CNN and Gap, so named for that very divide.

In addition, marketers apparently have felt little urgency to target a generation about 40 percent smaller than the 80 million or so Boomers—the country’s most affluent generation ever and one in its peak earning years.

In fact, Gen-X came along at a time when the gap between rich and poor was widening and winnowing away the middle class. There are more Xers saddled with college loans shopping at discounters such as Wal-Mart than there are living in big, expensive houses, wearing designer clothes, Strauss said. “Never before in the U.S. have we had a greater percentage of people 60 and older with a greater percentage of the wealth,” he added.

And, trend forecaster Irma Zandl said, there’s a sense among people in their late 20s and 30s that “something’s wrong.” Concerns about the war in Iraq, the economy and being overextended—working more than one job, in many cases—which Zandl found in her travels around the country from June through September, could be compelling Gen-Xers to hang on to money they might otherwise be spending on innovative apparel.

“The media found [Xers] in the Nineties,” Strauss said. “Since then, there’s a tendency [among marketers] to look back at where they’ve been; not to look ahead to where they’re going.

“Also, marketers have focused on the coasts—Seattle, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Boston,” Strauss added. “But as Xers enter their next phase of life, online and with kids, the heartland is becoming more important. The new technology, interactivity and access to information is having a leveling effect.”