Inside the Mix

Foothold in lucrative market awaits Forth & Towne if it can lure older women back to mall

Foothold in lucrative market awaits Forth & Towne if it can lure older women back to mall

For women, life stages can be marked by many things, one of which being the realization that your favorite clothing store is becoming increasingly and undeniably too young for you. The mall becomes less relevant as the percentage of desirable stores increases amid the teen utopia, and the department stores become more and more appealing and comfortable.

Gap Inc.'s newly opened fourth store brand (after The Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic), Forth & Towne (F&T), is aimed at women over 35, a market already catered to by the likes of Chico's and J. Jill, among not very many others.

Gary Muto, F&T's president, made it very clear during the run-up to the launch that the overall experience would be very different from what you would find anywhere else in the mall. Indeed, the most striking thing about F&T's layout and mood, as I noticed after making the trip to a store in West Nyack, NY, is that it works more like a mini-department store, with its four distinct clothing lines, rather than a regular mall store, which is clearly a nod toward the comfort zones of women ages 35 and up.

The F&T brand had service built into the store concept, and that, too, is immediately apparent. Press before the launch stated that the stores would be staffed by people with service experience, from spas and hotels and the like. That was more than apparent by the solicitous sales people, and as a relative insider of the sales and marketing world, I spotted a lot of behavior that was clearly decreed and scripted by a manual and intensive training.

It's always interesting to experience a brand from the very beginning, especially one from a company as large and marketing-aware as Gap Inc. For the baby-boomer market it serves, the prelaunch PR was a vital part of the mix. Many professional women in that age group noted the coverage in the mainstream and business media, and wrote about it in blogs that
are clearly widely read by the demographic and widely commented on. Influencer outreach in Chicago also was developed into in-store work, which is a key element. Advertising is not in the initial mix, with the PR work being backed up by interactive and direct marketing.

This is a loyal crowd - if a store aimed at them gets it right, they are fans for life. Another store in that market, Chico's, has had several consecutive years of double-digit sales figures. The approximately 1 million members of its Passport loyalty program made up 70% of its sales as of July 2004, according to a Business Week article. That's a highly loyal customer base, showing how valuable these women are, if the brand is pitched right. By the same token, J. Jill, which has struggled to find its positioning, has recently been subject to takeover rumors.

This market is an incredibly lucrative one, but the number of store brands dedicated to it, and patronized regularly by it, is smaller than it could be. F&T's challenge is to entice baby boomers away from the department stores and back into the habit of shopping at regular stores in the mall - and, if they're lucky, other retailers will enjoy a halo effect.

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