Fast Company

Gap's "Forth and Towne" Debacle Being Misinterpreted; Blame AARP

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.

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31 Comments

  • Mikester

    Maybe it's because people are sick of having cheap Chinese crap shoved down their throats. Can you say "second hand stores"? I don't know anybody that buys retail anymore... The clothing that was made in AMERICA many years ago is still around, durable and stylish. Meanwhile you buy something at Ann Taylor, the Gap, or wherever, it's falling apart at the seams less than a year later and you can't even give it to goodwill let alone take it to a clothing exchange. WAKE UP PEOPLE.... marketing is not the answer. How does it go again, you can put lipstick on a pig....?

  • Liliana Hernandez

    This is the worst news ever!! This is the best most fashionable clothes for the stylish woman. I am so dissapointed, who ever sat at the head of the board room table and made the decision to close this store is quite simply out of their mind!!

  • Anne-Marie Kovacs

    I wholeheartedly disagree with whomever pronounced that clothing was stylish at F & T. I'm 44 years old and did not have to walk into that store more than once to realize that this was another generic brand. Generic colors, generic styles. Plain, plain, plain boring vanilla with no surprises. What ever happened to delighting the customer? Why does the over 35 crowd need to be perceived as boring? To the contrary, at our age, women finally have made peace with their body types, have become confident about who they are and about their personal style. Just give us some styles to work with!!!

  • elle

    The problem is marketers, fashion designers telling us we have to dress a certain way at a certain age. I think that’s ridiculous, first of all. Once a person is no longer a child or teenager, this age uniform crap should be irrelevant. Not every 20-year old wants to dress like Britney Spears and not every 40 year old wants to dress up like the Queen of England. How about some stylish clothes simply aimed at women? Irrespective of age. Consider body type, consider lifestyle. That would make me happy.

  • Christine

    Today was closing day. I drove an hour and a half to say goodbye to saleswomen who know me by name because of how often I've shopped the stores since just shortly after they opened. I picked up a few final pieces to add to my mostly F&T wardrobe of t-shirts, suits, and everything in between. I can't tell you how much I'll miss the in-store tailoring (which I rarely needed), excellent service, quality and style.

    I used to shop your other stores from time to time, probably to the tune of $500 a year for the last several years, plus $250 in gift cards to Old Navy each holiday season for my nieces. Meanwhile I've spent at least $300 every couple of months at F&T. Now I will never shop ANY of their stores again.

    I said goodbye to Forth & Towne. And Gap can say goodbye to my business.

  • elle

    Just show the f*cking clothes. Do not mention age, it's that simple. Show many age groups of women wearing the clothes. I'm 43 and I don't shop according to my "age." I shop according to what suits my sense of style. Unfortunately for getting my cash Chico's and Coldwater Creek usually don't do it for me. I don't like colorful gunny sack clothes. I like a lot of what the kids are wearing with some exceptions of course. No minis, no super tight, low rise jeans with every bell and whistle, no camoflauge, and NO excessive sparkles. I hate leggings and skinny jeans too. At the same time, I hate boxy jackets with kooky patterns (Chico's are you reading this) and A-line skirts that hit the floor (Coldwater Creek). What am I, 75? Many women that complain they can't find anything are usually overweight and have let themselves go and/or interpret anything that smacks at a trend as slutty and inappropriate for someone who is mature. There are many trendy looks that keep you appropriately covered that older women can wear.
    If you have the legs you can even wear a miniskirt if you know how to do it with class. I don't like my age being referenced every time I turn around. I'm a humanbeing first, a woman second, and a 43 year old third. And no two 43 year olds are alike. If I don't want to live in Talbot classics or wear Chico's "travel wear", why should I have to just because I've reached a certain age?

  • elle

    The mistake marketers make is targeting an age group when they should just be targeting a style type. Nobody likes to be reminded they are getting old, especially women, and every woman over 35+ is an individual not just an age. I'm 43 and consistently pass for 10 - 15 years younger, I am petite and small boned and I like fashion forward looks not the staid and stuffy "classics" or pajama like travel wear that is often marketed to my age group. This is why I continue to buy casual tops and jeans in juniors and my foundation working pieces from places like Talbots and Nordstrom. I may be over forty, but I'm living a single girl life, no kids and a new career. My lifestyle is 30-something. A marketer who says to me "you're over 40, have college age kids, and a spare tire," has the wrong woman and from what I've been reading, I'm hardly alone.

  • Liz

    Sadly Gap recognized a market need and then failed to give it time to develop into a mature business. While I'm not quite in what Forth & Towne considered it's target "age", Gap recognized for a brief glimmering moment that the AVERAGE women is larger than a size 12, with the wide size range of 2-20. At the same time, providing an outfit for every occasion that was stylish and out of a beautiful fabric or unique print.

    With Friends and Family, I always enjoyed going to Algonquin Commons to Forth & Towne. Having spent my career to date in retail, the staff in this store is what all retailers should aspire to achieve. These ladies showed a determination to make the shopping experience unique and a dedication to this concept. It is simply unfortunate that their dedication and hardwork didn't pay off.

    To these ladies, I wish you all the best and hope to see you at the mall. You became my #1 shopping destination and I feel like I'm losing an old friend.

    To Gap, PLEASE, get it together. Figure out WHO your want for you customer and own it. Remember that the Fashion Forward Customer wants the right item at the right time. She should see something FRESH and NEW everytime that she walks into a location even if that is within the same week. This customer you courted briefly has the disposable income that you should covet.

    Give us a reason to return or continue shopping at your other concepts. You may have an opportunity to gain some of your Forth & Towne Customers simply by expanding your Banana Republic Size Range.

    For a brief moment you gave us exactly what we wanted, so figure out how to take what you learned and make it work at Banana Republic, Gap or Old Navy.

    Give us what we want and we will give your our money. After all, isn't that what the Forth & Towne shopping experience was about to begin with?

  • Amy

    I spent just over $2400 over a one week period at F&T's going-out-of business sale. I basically bought one of everything and figure I won't go back to the mall for several years after this. (Weight loss/gain will be handled by my seamstress.) I am a 47-year-old college professor and I don't want to be seen in the same clothes my students wear any more than they want to see me in the latest from GAP/Old Navy. I was thrilled to finally have fashionable clothes to wear that were well-made out of good fabrics: wool, silk, linen. I feel completely betrayed by GAP Corp.; they seduced me with beautiful clothes, an attractive store, fantastic customer service -- and then they dumped me for being too old. It was SO gratifying to go to the store (I was lucky enough to be within driving distance of 3 F&T locations) and be recognized by the sales staff, go into a dressing room with flattering lighting, be given a bottle of water, and then actually be waited on by people who knew the merchandise and could choose pieces that coordinated AND flattered my size 10 hourglass figure. Belts and scarves in the dressing room "lobby" made it a breeze to accessorize and shopping was actually fun. If only GAP had given it a chance to succeed; every time I was in a store women were talking about how great it was, and the final sale days were like a funeral.Is anyone listening?

  • Carla

    I already miss my local Forth & Towne. I am 55 and a size 6 and the clothes were pretty and flattering. The jeans were the first I have purhased in many years that fit so well.
    I think the store is closing because it was the baby of the outgoing CEO and not supported by the new regime. That is a shame as it was a beautiful store where many of my friends and their twenty something daughters shopped.
    I believe the media is obsessed with the youth culture. I am happy to be my age and am not looking to be twenty again. If GAP hopes to do better financially, closing F&T will not send those of us who shopped there to any of their other stores. We will look to spend our money elsewhere where quality, fit, and service matter. My hope is another retailer will pick up this same concept and open a store they will promote.

  • Kathy

    I can't believe they are closing one of the few stores that have classy, well made clothing with a great price and (I thought) broad appeal. I am 48, a size 6, and not ashamed of my age. I have 2 daughters, ages 18 and 25, and we all loved the clothing as well as the store itself. We are blessed in that we can share some clothes, and yet in this case, still look age appropriate and great. This is true of many of my friends as well. The dresses were stylish and classic, not frumpy or 'boxy', too matronly or too young. How hard can it be to make clothes like this?!! Market it however you damn well please - we aren't idiots and will buy what we like, regardless of the geniuses in marketing offices. Maybe you just didn't give it a long enough chance!

  • Lisa

    I'm really sad this store is closing. I don't even live in a city where there is a Forth and Towne location, but when I travel to Chicago I made it a point to shop there every time. I am a 46 y.o. working mother and I never thought of Forth and Towne as a store where "older women" shop (unlike Chico's, Coldwater Creek or Talbots) because the styles were (imho) very chic and not at all frumpy. I found great things to wear to the office and for weekends and so did my 79 year old mom! We have very different tastes, but were both happy with the store.

    I think this segment of the market is terribly underserved.

  • Maggie

    One of the first Forth and Towne shops in the country was the store at Algonquin Commons outdoor shopping plaza. I had heard that they were a GAP company, so I entered hoping that the store would live up to the hype.

    I'm not Town and Forthe's prime "target market" as I am in my late 20s---going on 30 this year. :-p I do love my GAP jeans, boyfriend cashmere sweater, and the awesome body flattering tees that Gap carries every year. I do have some hoodies I wear with my levi jeans, but for the most part I wear more classic tailored items.

    Ann Taylor Loft didn't fit me correctly as I have very long legs with a short torso--and Ann Taylor Loft seems to be cut for a longer torsoed petite woman--even in their regular sections.

    I absolutely positively adored Town and Forthe and have bought some fabulous outfits from them. I loved the stretchy knits pieces that could mix and match for a fabulous travel wardrobe (without that texture that screams *travel pieces*)

    Town and Forthe is pretty expensive, and I've been saving up to do a late spring shopping spree over Memorial Day Weekend.I have a few formal events to attend this summer. I hope that my store is open this coming week so I can buy the outfits I need and have been drooling over.

    I understand the feeling that Forth and Towne did not delight their target market by niching them into such a concrete demographic profile. I think that doing away with the stores all together would be a huge mistake that GAP will come to regret. There are a lot of women like myself that are a bit younger, but lean towards the classic styles of Forth and Towne, JJill, and Nordstrom.

    It is tough for younger women to find the styles they want amidst the piles of little frilly dresses with plunging necklines and way too short hemlines. We need classic blazers, knit tops, and pants that look like a million bucks as well as the perfect sundress for a June afternoon wedding.

    Please stay open. I love your store and the lines you carry. The saleswomen are also fabulous. You have a winning combination once you find you customer base. Please don't close.

    A loyal customer,
    Micah Rogier

  • Liz

    I am 26 years old, and I LOVE F&T's clothes. I really appreciated their longer shirt lengths and classy cuts. Their "35+" marketing didn't keep from shopping there - and every under-35 friend I brought there loved the clothes too. Infinitely more flattering than usual. It did take awhile to find the store ... and just as it seemed to be gaining attention, Gap announced its closure. What are they thinking?! F&T was the first time in about 4 years that I'd spent money at one of Gap's brands.

  • Jennie

    Like many of the female posters here, I LOVED Forth and Towne. I placed my first order in February of this year, after receiving a coupon for their store in an order I placed from Banana Republic. I'd never heard of them before. I placed another large order in March, thinkingThen...the marketing slapped me in the face.

    See, I'm 27 years old - so the moment I found out their clothes were aimed at the post 35 woman I thought "Gosh, are these old ladies clothes? I'm not even 30 yet, what am I doing on their website. Quick, get me American Eagle before I start looking like my mom."

    Forth and Towne was a great store for any woman, regardless of age, who wants professional, yet up-to-date look. The mistake was telling me, and many others like me, that it was for a mature audience, a turnoff for females everywhere.

  • Candice Greathouse

    I live in Tampa, Florida, and never had the pleasure of stepping in to a Forth and Towne. We never got one. And why in gods name would you put a beautiful full color ad in one of the countrys nationally distributed leading fashion magazines, if the store was only in certain cities! And then to ad insult to injury you are going to close down the Forth and Towne stores and web site... So there is no way for me to get these clothes. When I saw the the ad for the first time I just about lost it, you see I am a very snazzy, fashionable 54 year old woman, and I thought finally clothes for me that I can wear, I will just get them on the web site, They just looked so perfect, I was willing to buy on line,(but no web site) what a shame, back to the search, and to my sewing machine. I can tell you this it would have to be a cold day in ....... before I would ever buy in Chicos, Talbots, or Cold Water something something. It really is a shame, they really blew it and did not try hard enough to make a go of it. Candice in Tampa

  • Katherine

    So another marketing analysis says that I am not comfortable with the idea of aging. Another group of people out to tell me that I am squemish over my impending senility (which can only be around the corner because I am, after all, 43).

    The flop here is a market (not a population) obsessed with youth. The only flop here is a store that is only willing to stay open for less than a year - with no marketing. I had a shop in my town and I think I have seen one ad, in a magazine.

    Meanwhile I am bombarded with visions of youthful exuberance while retailers go after the kiddie market - oh, and euphemistic speech about "maturing" and "adults" and such. Newsflash - I'm not 20, I have no desire to return to my 20's, and I certianly don't want to dress like I am 20. I cringe at the thought of walking into a meeting wearing something from Gap or Old Navy. And untl the "marketers" get that, they aren't getting one red cent of my money.

  • Sue

    I LOVED Forth and Towne!!! I hate to see it close. Although I am over 50, I don't want to dress like a teenager but don't want to look frumpy either. Market the concept differently if you have to and reopen. The clothes are great!!