Consumers fed up with exorbitant designer labels and conformity are demanding good value on apparel purchases, plus more comfortable and flexible fashions to fit their changing work and home lifestyles.
Retailers have finally gotten the message, and many stores are shifting gears to offer a wider assortment of fashions, including more lower-priced clothing and fewer dress suits for men and women, as casual dress plays a bigger role in the workplace.
Mass merchandisers including Wal-Mart Stores and Kmart Corp. are playing up their casual wear and jeans departments, while specialty retailers including The Gap are coming out with new ways of making chic clothing cheaper.
Department stores are struggling to offer both high-end and lower-end fashion, without hurting their images as trend-setters in fashion marketing. But the balance is tricky.
"It's not easy for department stores to do, because it's a delicate balancing act between setting the fashion tone and being affordable," says Isaac Lagnado of retail consultancy Tactical Retail Solutions.
But retail watchers agree the apparel industry, in the doldrums for the last few years, has been left no choice but to comply with consumers' needs for less costly offerings.
Retailers like Sears, Roebuck & Co., which began emphasizing value-oriented fashion a year ago in its "Come see the softer side of Sears" TV campaign via Young & Rubicam, New York, are already seeing a payoff from the strategy.
Sales for Sears Merchandise Group through the first half of this year increased an average of 11.7% compared with a year ago, and that trend is expected to continue throughout the year.
Also cashing in on the movement toward more casual, less costly clothing are off-price retailers Marshall's, T.J. Maxx and Filene's Basement, as well as catalogers like Lands' End and Eddie Bauer that cater to price-conscious casual dressers.
J.C. Penney Co., whose value-oriented fashion positioning mirrors Sears', is also thriving.
"What's happening is that it's becoming acceptable for women to wear more casual clothing and pay less to look good in the office, while it's also OK to pay higher prices for dress-up clothes," says retail consultant Liz Tahir.
Retailers are generally coping with consumers' changing behavior by de-emphasizing dress clothing, increasing versatile casual fashions and adding more merchandise at lower price points.
No. 2 apparel marketer The Gap has invented an entirely new concept this year called Old Navy Clothing Co., opening 50 outlets to sell casual fashions at prices 20% to 25% below its traditional merchandise.
Following the lead of some other department stores including Macy's and Nordstrom, Dayton Hudson Corp.'s Department Store division tested selling slightly more merchandise at lower price points, including apparel, and first-quarter sales increased 6%.
Dayton Hudson will continue the strategy through yearend.
Despite the new emphasis on value, however, high apparel prices still lurk within many stores, and consultants warn that even the current movement isn't necessarily permanent.
"The pendulum is always swinging, and in time will eventually swing back toward more self-conscious and costly clothing," predicts Frederick Marx, president of the retail marketing agency Marx Layne & Co., Farmington Hills, Mich.
"The only thing constant in fashion is change, and you can bet that people will get sick of casual styles one day and move back toward an ultra high-end look."