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BOOMERS MEAN BIG BUSINESS
MERCHANTS SCRAMBLING TO LURE MATURE AMERICANS AWAY FROM THEIR MONEY

The baby boomers may be getting older, but they have yet to bequeath one iota of their vast influence to those who have followed in their footsteps.

They are gray, even a little flabby, but they've still got a buying power no other age group can equal. Retailers across the nation - even those in child-oriented Utah - are scrambling to court those abundant boomer bucks.Utah retailers are using several approaches popular nationally to help boomers part with their cash:

- Make the older customers feel good about themselves.

The previous generation may have grown older. But the baby boomers are only getting better.

"Our customers don't view themselves as getting older," said Bob Middlemas, regional manager of the Utah Nordstrom. "They consider themselves to be getting more refined."

Retailers are eager to verify that positive perspective. In April, Nordstrom held a daylong seminar for women called "Forty and Fabulous." The seminar covered techniques for developing a young attitude and taking years off one's appearance with proper eating, exercise, grooming and clothing.

It was heavy on the feel-good words like "vital," "vibrant," "exhilarating" and fulfilling."

And it translated into stellar store sales for Nordstrom. The store plans a similar promotion in the fall, Middlemas said.

- Make the older customer feel mainstream. One of the most obvious techniques is the increased use of older models in catalog and runway shows.

"Older women in the audience don't want to see - nor can they relate to - a 19- or 20-year-old girl on the runway. They want to see more mature women," said Susan Collins, ZCMI fashion coordinator.

Nordstrom's "Forty and Fabulous" seminar was topped off with a fashion show, using customers in their 40s as the models. The technique won wild applause from the audience.

Nordstrom has come to the same conclusion ZCMI has: "A lot of our customers want to see older models they can relate to," Middlemas said. "So when we hire models for our shows, we are requesting older models."

"I really enjoy seeing women who are middle-aged or older in fashion shows," said Barbara Bassett, associate director of the Utah State Bar.

Bassett and her husband, Boyce Yanik, are among the affluent boomers retailers are wooing.

- Find a more mature selling peg than the trend-oriented advertising of the '80s. Most retailers courting the boomers are stressing quality, durability and ease of care over trendiness these days.

One can't sell lace leggings or bustiers to boomers even though Madonna does wear them and fashion pundits cite them as the "must have" items for the summer of 1990.

But retailers can sell Dooney & Bourke leather purses to boomer women for the stiff price of $130 to $500 because of the Dooney & Bourke reputation for quality, elegance and durability.

"Rather than being interested in the trendy fashions of the '80s, mature men and women are thinking more in terms of investment dressing," Collins said. "That means they will spend a little bit more for a jacket or suit, but the quality and tailoring is better."

Bassett concurred. "My interest in quality is much higher," Bassett said. "I don't like to spend a lot of time ironing and taking care of clothing, so I prefer better quality fabrics and designs that don't take a lot of maintenance."

- Offer boomers increased selection in the goods they want. Stores are responding to the demand for better quality goods with expansion of high-end lines of clothing, cosmetics and housewares.

A recent J.C. Penney news release said, "We have made a full commitment to serving the fashion needs of the middle- and upper/middle-income consumers."

The chain announced, "We are adding to our mix a larger selection of higher-taste-level goods." J.C. Penney calls its upgraded wares "ego-sensitive merchandise" for the affluent consumer seeking the highest quality.

The downtown ZCMI is drastically expanding its inventory of high-quality sportswear and designer lines for men and women to meet the greater demand for elegant goods.

The store will undergo extensive redesign in the next 18 months. "Our second floor will be changing dramatically to provide more inventory for the more mature female customer," said Dell Stokes, downtown store manager.

"Better sportswear for men will be at the Main Street entrance, and it will be a much larger area than it is now."

The boomers don't just want quality goods, they want merchandise that tactfully meets the needs of the older consumer, such as larger-size clothing and anti-aging cosmetics.

Liz Claiborne - one of the most popular middle-line designers in America - broke new ground last fall by launching a line of larger-size women's wear called "Elisabeth." The Claiborne company may have started a national trend as other middle-to high-end designers woo the affluent - and in many cases more ample - baby boomers.

Her new line has been a great success in Utah. Both ZCMI and Nordstrom report that Elisabeth clothing has been flying out the door. Elisabeth clothes account for nearly 25 percent of the business in the Town Square department of the downtown Nordstrom, said department manager Mary Fresques.

The larger-size clothing (ranging from women's size 14 to 22) is often tactfully sized 1 through 3. (Sizes 14-16 are size 1, sizes 18-20 are size 2, etc.)

But despite all the right moves, convincing the baby boomers to spend their bucks will be no easy task. With maturity comes conservatism and a moderation of appetites.

"I'm becoming more conservative in my buying patterns," Bassett said. "I am getting more interested in putting money in the stock market, saving my daughter's college education and building a retirement fund. I'm spending more carefully now than I did a few years ago."