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Women's Fading Love of Clothes Is Bittersweet for Retail: Gadfly

Women's Fading Love of Clothes Is Bittersweet for Retail: Gadfly

(Bloomberg)—Women love new clothes, right? The answer these days is: not so much.

There's an apparel armageddon spanning the Atlantic. And that is bad news for retailers.

Number of women buying fewer clothes than a decade ago

60%

According to Steve Rowe, the new chief executive of Britain's Marks & Spencer, 60 percent of women are buying fewer clothes than they were 10 years ago.

It's a similar story at U.S. department store Kohls, whose chief executive explained the company's weak results like this: "They're not buying apparel, that's the simple answer."

The picture can partly be explained by demographics. According to Rowe, M&S's core clothing customer is a woman in her 50s. It’s a similar picture at British department store Debenhams, whose 41-year-old "Claire" buys fashion and beauty products and likes to have a glass of prosecco in the store restaurant.

The trouble is, older women buy fewer clothes.

Millennials are still buying clothes apace -- they don't want to been seen in too many selfies wearing the same outfit. But they don't have as much to spend, so that means more, cheaper items, from the likes of H&M, Primark, Asos or Forever 21.

Meanwhile, there are few must-have fashion trends to send women scrambling for new styles. And spending is being diverted to other areas, such as cosmetics, technology, holidays and meals out.

And where women are spending on clothes, they're looking for value, according to Bloomberg Intelligence's Poonam Goyal, another boost to the bargain end of the market such as TJX, which operates the T.J. Maxx chain (known as T.K. Maxx in Britain).

All this makes life difficult for clothing retailers, particularly in the mid-market that's caught between the cheap-chic stores favored by younger shoppers and more upscale locations.

Investors are paying attention. In the U.K., the likes of M&S, Next and Debenhams have seen their valuations fall as sales suffered.

In the U.S., the problems can be seen in the recent weak reporting season from department store operators including Macy's, Nordstrom, Kohls and J.C. Penney, for whom clothing is a significant share of revenue. Specialty retailers such as Gap are also suffering, while Aeropostale, the teen retailer, filed for bankruptcy earlier this month.

So what's the answer?

Certainly not cutting prices. Clothing retailers have been slashing prices to stimulate demand on both sides of the Atlantic, but that has failed to kickstart a recovery.

Even if, for example, the trend for frayed denim morphed into a fashion frenzy, that wouldn't be enough. Taking out overcapacity is the only option.

Some British clothing retailers have already pared back their footprints -- either through choice or company failure. Even Spain's Inditex, which owns the successful Zara chain, is expanding its store base more slowly. Next has been canny in tackling the matter, focusing on large stores and providing nice cafes and toilets that appeal to older shoppers, while at the same time reducing smaller outlets. Others, such as M&S, simply need to cut back.

In the U.S. American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch and Express are among retailers that have recently closed stores. Macy's is among those that have also announced plans to retrench.

This is not just about a surfeit of physical stores. Online clothing capacity is expanding, too.

Analysts at Cowen forecast that Amazon will be the biggest U.S. clothing retailer next year. But new online specialists are popping up all the time, and they are all nibbling at the sales of the existing players.

On the main street and online, there are simply too many mouths to feed.

This adjustment is going to be painful for investors in the short term. But as women's love affair with fashion falters, doing nothing will be even more costly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story: Andrea Felsted in London at [email protected] Shelly Banjo in New York at [email protected]

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© 2016 Bloomberg L.P

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