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Who caters for the fashion-conscious fifties?

Jd willams over 50s

The age group is a valuable market – but they are being underestimated by the retailers who once drew them in. So where are they shopping?

Debenhams kley aw19 (5)

Debenhams Kley

Baby Boomers, the top end of Gen X, “midsters” or middle-aged – whatever you call them, shoppers in their fifties and upwards are a demographic worth capturing. Men and women aged over 55 contributed over a third of the total spend on fashion in the UK last year – £12.2bn out of a total of £34.6bn, research by Kantar has shown.

And yet these consumers are proving to be a thorn in the side of traditional high street retailers and department stores, as they increasingly refuse to “dress their age”. Instead, they expect fashionable designs with a flattering fit, and they are prepared to shop around to find brands that will cater to this need.

Insurance company SunLife found that, in 2019, UK women over 50 had average savings of £33,395. However, they are careful about their expenditure.

For retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and John Lewis, this presents a challenge: how to strike the balance between attracting younger millennial and Gen Z shoppers, and designing fashion that appeals to an older customer, without playing it too safe. Critics say they have a lot of work to do. 

Paul Martin, UK head of retail at KPMG, says this age group are “time rich and sometimes cash rich”: “Many of them feel young at heart, but think their traditional brands don’t cater to them.”

Erica Vilkauls, former CEO of LK Bennett and East, agrees that this age group are being ignored by the brands they once relied on: “John Lewis and M&S have been chasing the younger customer for several years now. 

“This is a fine thing to do, as long as you cater for your current customers at the same time. I don’t think buyers and senior directors of many chains go to their stores often enough and observe just who is there.”

Womenswear consultant Sue Dunn says: “Retailers affected by slow sales often avoid risks and ‘buy safe’ with the result that their ranges are uninteresting. This explains the slower sales in the part of the women’s market that is not aimed at the youngest fast fashion customers.”

Making a change

However, retailers say they understand how the 50-plus consumer shops for fashion now, and are updating their collections and introducing new house brands accordingly.

M&S has faced criticism for alienating its traditional shopper in its quest to attract younger shoppers.

Retailers think, ‘We want to make our ranges more contemporary,’ but then they go too extreme

Former high street clothing CEO

One former high street clothing CEO tells Drapers: “You only need to walk around an M&S store – a lot of those customers are not going to be buying skinny jeans. That is not its core customer. 

“Retailers think, ‘We want to make our ranges more contemporary,’ but then they go too extreme.”

Dunn tells Drapers: “They need to have interesting lines with a fit designed to suit and flatter not an ‘old’ customer, but someone who wants to be fashionable but has a body that makes that inevitably more difficult to achieve. This may need changes in fit: larger armholes and sleeves, or fewer sleeveless items.”

But in November 2019, during the announcement of its half-year results, M&S CEO Steve Rowe said the retailer had been working to move away from some of the “frumpiness” previously seen in its clothing ranges.

He added: “We have modernised the fit and made sure that it is just a little more stylish, and that has resonated with customers of all ages.”

An M&S spokeswoman tells Drapers: “We know if you get a product right so it hits a sweet spot – a pair of perfectly fitting jeans or a beautifully cut piece of cashmere – it will be worn and loved by customers of all ages.”

The former high street CEO says many retailers have an outdated image of shoppers in their fifties: “It’s about understanding what a 50-year-old person looks like today. I do think that some brands think a 50-year-old woman is quite frumpy.” 

She attributes the poor performance of retailers including M&S, Debenhams and John Lewis that are seeking to cater to fashionable fifties to a lack of choice, poor store experience and a lack of digital engagement: “Women’s fashion is very undifferentiated – and I’d include House of Fraser in this. Half of Debenhams is third-party brands, and that would be higher at John Lewis – and a lot of the brands are the same – so this customer has no real loyalty.”

Age is no longer an accurate predictor of fashion choices

Lesley Chapman, Debenhams

The department stores are taking heed. Debenhams launched own-label Kley in September 2019. Not specifically aimed at an older customer, it nonetheless offers “effortless” neutral pieces that could appeal to this market. In 2018, John Lewis refreshed its own-brand offer with the launch of John Lewis & Partners, which offers wearable womenswear with broad appeal. 

John Lewis tells Drapers: “Our approach is to offer clothes that make our customers feel great whatever their age. 

“Our fashion brands are heavily shopped by customers who are in their fifties and older.” 

Lesley Chapman, director of brand at Debenhams, says: “We believe fashion transcends age. Brands such as Kley appeal to young and older customers looking for timeless, seasonless and elegant fashion. While age can be a factor in female beauty, swimwear and lingerie purchases, it’s no longer an accurate predictor of fashion choices more broadly. It’s not about age – it’s about individual style.”

“Ten or 15 years ago, there would be two or three brands for that generation, but their share has been diversified across multiple ones instead,” says KPMG’s Martin. “Some are more age agnostic – if you are a consumer who wants to feel young, you may feel more comfortable shopping with one of these other brands.”

A label that has repeatedly been cited as catering well to the 50-plus market is etailer Sosandar. Founded in 2015, it reported record results for the last quarter of 2019 – with 153% revenue growth in December, and a 136% increase on the same quarter in 2018.


Sosandar spring 20

Chana Baram, retail analyst for Mintel, observes that Sosandar “has tapped into a gap in the market for under-served mature women with its wide range of ageless but trend-led own-label clothing”.

Mint Velvet, Hobbs and Whistles are also focusing on offering a more relaxed, contemporary fit that appeals to a broad range of ages.

The former high street CEO says: “As you get older, your body shape does change, so the fitting part of the design process is really key – and Mint Velvet and Hobbs do this very well. Whistles had a few years of trying to find its identity, but it’s now better than I’ve seen it look for a good few years. It’s not high fashion, but is more fashionable than others. It’s more affordable and you’re not paying those luxury prices.”

Etailer JD Williams is one of the few brands to feature older models in its marketing (pictured top).

Kenyatte Nelson, chief brand officer for JD Williams parent company N Brown Group, says: “Using age-relevant models in our campaigns is important, as we know this customer wants to see someone they relate to.

“But our focus is also on the fundamentals of good product design and fit. Our ranges are designed specifically for the mature woman – we focus on shape and fits that flatter, and we use real bodies, rather than mannequins, in the design process.”

Today’s 50-plus female shopper is stylish, but some brands have been slow to take note, to their own detriment. Fit is key for this generation, and there needs to be a balance between good-quality product that is fashion forward but does not alienate the shopper. Competition to get it right is rife.



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