The business press has been all over the Gap's decision to close their "Forth and Towne" division after having sunk $40 million into this ill-fated attempt to win over women 35+ who were — or so the argument went — disenfranchised by the fashion world's obsession with the youth market.
Looking for an explanation for what went wrong, the New York Times noted that "...analysts said merchants rushing to fill a perceived gap in the mall created too much competition in a niche market." Huh? The market is far from niche. As the Times reported only a few paragraphs later, "In slides for investors the executives...ticked off the numbers that seemed to ensure success: Baby boomers, they said, spent $42.7 billion on apparel last year, while teenagers spent $20 billion."
The problem wasn't that the niche market couldn't support the number of competitive stores, or that the merchandise assortment wasn't appealing. The problem was that baby boomers don't want to be addressed as baby boomers, and even women as young as 35 don't want to be put into the age box.
The truth is that age is the last remaining taboo in American marketing. It's okay for manufacturers and retailers to target based on every conceivable demographic and psychographic slice of the market. In this post-feminism age is perfect fine to reach out to women as women. You can target gays. You can put Latinos in the marketing cross-hairs.
But for millions of Americans, any reference to age is dicey. And Forth & Towne wasn't exactly subtle; their website proclaims that they were created for "a new generation of women, determined to find current, wearable fashions in fits that flatter. Women who have grown-up, grown into themselves, and want to look as fabulous as they feel."
That kind of ill-disguised, in-your-face-appeal to the older crowd is bound to backfire. Blame AARP for that. Their ham-handed, stereotypical representations of mindless, happy retirees have made most people over 50 await the arrival of their membership package with the joy that awaits an IRS audit notice.
The Times also pointed out that department stores have experienced something of a resurgence, and that their growth "has overtaken that of specialty clothing chains." That's not a surprise. A 42-year old woman who walks into a department store isn't making a public branding statement about her being 42, as she does when she walks into Forth & Towne. Hence the plug-pulling.
The Gap's flop with female boomers mirrors a larger challenge. Marketers are salivating over the buying power of this market, but don't quite know how to target them without turning their brands into Centrum Silver. Even more progressive marketers, like Fideliity, who are trotting out boomer icons, are running a risk. Because the more obvious your messaging becomes, the more obvious your failures will be.