Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dollar days and pink collar blues

Sometimes I’m an affluent shopper, roaming the aisles of Whole Foods and Macy’s, using my Banana Republic credit card and searching out deals on name brands. In tighter times, I’m cruising the dollar store aisles for generic sandwich bags and cheap liquid soap for the bathroom. Because I’m a woman and do most of the shopping for my household, my spending should matter a great deal to retailers, no matter which category I’m in.

Recently, Meyers Research Center highlighted a somewhat overlooked group of shoppers they called “the Pink Collar shopper,” who is generally a working woman whose income places her in a tighter budget bracket than either non-employed housewives or wealthier middle to upper income working women. I’m not sure what color collar we’d give these ladies (golf shirt for the first, white collar for the second?) but there are definite differences in their shopping patterns. In particular, it’s no surprise that the pink collar shopper is often working with a single income and has less resources to fall back upon in tight times.

Seidl and Friedlander of Meyers suggest that this demographic group will be growing as economic times make it tougher for everyone. As someone who’s moved between all of these categories in the last ten years, from single struggling wage earner to upper middle class professional couple to out of the paid workforce and back again, my shopping patterns mirror all of the groups that Meyers captured. Indeed, it’s worth noting that people do shift in and out of different categories throughout their lifetime. This helps to make sense of one of their findings, which is that the Pink Collar shopper browses a lot but doesn’t always buy. Here’s what they said:

While low-income working women use fewer specialty stores, they have a strong affinity for those they do visit. They tend to visit these specialty stores just as frequently—and sometimes more frequently — than do affluent career women. This is particularly noticeable in the apparel and sporting goods categories. Although she cannot compete with the affluent shopper in all aspects of lifestyle, the pink-collar shopper does commonly reserve some area of special interest, development or pride, and may spend hard-earned money and time in that area. Retailers can certainly appeal to such interest.
This gels well with ethnographic work on low-income women that shows that they are more likely to buy a product they perceive as being a longstanding value -- worth the money -- even if it costs a bit more up-front. A loyalty to brands is part of that mindset: after all, who wants to get something inexpensive if it doesn’t work? We also shop with our future selves in mind. We live in America, the Land of Opportunity, and no one wants to believe they’ll be stuck in a low-income life forever. And while we may not aspire to (or even believe in) the retail-worshipping world of the Sex and the City women, it’s worthwhile window shopping to know what you really want when that lottery check or Working Girl promotion finally comes through. It’s the same reason women are the target sales audience for “shelter” and fashion magazines. Some of it is vicarious living, some is future planning.

What’s interesting is that at the same time, these women are also more frequent shoppers at the Dollar Store. Tying these two thoughts together, it makes sense for dollar stores to start thinking more carefully about branding. Target, while certainly no dollar store, gets this more than many other retailers. Although they’ve had mixed luck with their lower priced designer goods, in general people describe the merchandise as high quality for a good price, despite the fact that Target goods are categorically less expensive than the name-brand counterparts sold on the same shelves, just a few slots away. The cache of Target, (say it “cashay of Tarjay”), is strong even if some product lines are more successful than others. (no one wants a skirt with giant polka dots even if a famous designer claims it’s hot -- I don't care how hard Target marketers try to convince me otherwise.)

People want consistency and quality when they worry about every purchase. They’ll return if they know they can get a well designed or reliable product for a small additional investment. Still, it will be a long time before the dollar store becomes a clothing boutique. Granted one-stop pharmacy stores like CVS and Rite-Aid have begun selling some clothing, but those that have ventured into marketing their own branded lines have struggled and typically collapsed after very lackluster sales. It’d take a very creative marketing campaign to shift sensibilities about clothing and the dollar store. One good example does spring to mind though - Payless Shoes, who needed to position itself as both designer friendly and inexpensive, did manage to substantially improve their image among non-sustenance shoppers. It'd definitely been a struggle for them.

Clothing at the Dollar Store would also compete with a well established set of retail outlets that have their own cool cache: Goodwill and Salvation Army stores. Developing a market sensibility and a following helps. Consider: among women, it’s no longer okay to say you’re on a diet (say “I’m doing Weight Watchers” or “Jenny Craig” and you’re okay) but it’s perfectly okay to say you shop at Goodwill. It's partly because college students, hipsters, and folks of all types converge in the aisles of vintage and not-yet-vintage goods. So, until someone develops a brand strategy that works, I think I’ll keep getting my plastic ware at the Dollar Store and buy my t-shirts elsewhere.

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