The trend is just a blip right now-the working mother is still by far the majority, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics-but power moms are an important target group for marketers.
For one, women who leave the workforce to rear children tend to be affluent, savvy consumers who, in addition to changing wardrobes also change their lifestyles, attitudes and buying habits.
Secondly, the group stands a good chance of growing: In recent years, research by Roper Starch Worldwide has found a shift in women's preferences about working full-time vs. staying at home-with the desire to stay home gaining significantly.
Peter Kim, vice chairman-chief strategy officer at McCann Erickson Worldwide, New York, has conducted several studies on women in recent years. His research indicates a significant portion of women-primarily from upper-income brackets-are staying home to rear children, a trend that began in the late 1980s.
"We have no statistics but it's our observation from our interviews that most will probably return but are making a short-term decision to stay with the children for a certain period of time," he says. He says the women his studies interviewed had been on a career track but now are taking on the work attitude of the '90s.
"They are more focused on quality of life, with the family as the center of social activity," he says. "They're much less driven to succeed in the career. Much as men today, these women are looking for quality of life, a job with time more of a premium than absolute income."
Some marketers are starting to notice the "stopping out" trend, too.
"We have been tracking this new breed of women as best we can from an attitudinal standpoint rather than a quantitative, numerical standpoint," says Anne Jardine, VP-marketing for Kayser-Roth Corp.'s No Nonsense legwear.
To research trends in the marketplace, the company uses the Yankelovich Monitor and Household Testing Institute. In addition, No Nonsense conducts its own focus groups among working women and non-working women. "We are hypothesizing that group [working women now at home] is going to continue to grow. It's definitely grown in the last few years and it's not a short-time fad but a longtime trend," Ms. Jardine says.
The company has support for its hypothesis: Marketing research shows product demand is shifting. Sales of socks and tights-typically worn in casual settings-are growing, at sheer hosiery's expense.
In 1993, sales of sheer hosiery accounted for 67% of the $4.2 billion women's legwear market; 23% was casual socks and 10% tights and dressy socks, says Ms. Jardine. "The shift that's taken place is that probably 10 years ago it was more like about 85% sheer hosiery, about 13% socks and 2% tights and trouser socks," she says.
Maidenform is another company that has recognized motherhood can be a powerful marketing tool.
In the 1950s, the brand's so-called dream campaign showed the "Maidenform Woman" barging down the Nile in her Maidenform bra. In the 1970s and '80s, she was the doctor in surgery or a jet-setting executive. Today, she's turned up in, of all places, the PTA meeting.
"The PTA spot [has] been specifically created to talk to women who are blending motherhood with all the other facets of their lives, whatever they chose," says Debi Feinman, Ogilvy & Mather VP-management supervisor responsible for the Maidenform account. "It tries to emphasize that their own confidence empowers them to succeed in whatever they do."
That balancing act in creative could pay off as family life grows in importance among consumers at all income levels.
High-profile career women such as Anna Quindlen and Susan Gillette know about the trend firsthand.
Ms. Quindlen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, announced earlier this month that she would leave the newspaper at yearend to write novels-a decision she says will provide her with increased flexibility to care for her three children.
"I don't know what kind of childcare I'll need in the future. I may not need any at all. I'll be more flexible in what we can do in the time they have off from school," says Ms. Quindlen.
Similarly, Ms. Gillette, former president of DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago, recently cut back her schedule to spend more time at home with her daughters, ages 10 and 12. Now she works part time as strategic consultant to the agency's Helene Curtis Industries account.
Ms. Gillette feels "stopping out" women comprise a very small market, made up of "the brightest and the best with the most money." But like many marketing industry executives, she doesn't think it's a group marketers should target specifically.
"They're already being reached according to income, the number of children they have at home and their ages, and ac-cording to their media choices. ... It won't be necessary to split another hair demographically," she says.
In fact, McCann's Mr. Kim says that as a sheer macro demographic, the group called "the stay-at-home housewife" actually has been declining since the 1960s.
"As the two-paycheck family becomes an economic necessity, few people have the option of dropping out of the workforce completely," Mr. Kim notes.
Data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics support Mr. Kim's findings. As of 1992, the most recent statistics available, 59.9% of married women with children under age 6 and 75.4% of married women with children age 6 to 17 worked outside of the home. Those numbers have been rising steadily for several years.
But Mothers at Home, a Virginia-based national mothers' support group, contends the bureau's definition of "working outside the home" is vague: Some women work part time, which can be as little as one hour per week, and some work seasonally, which can mean as little as one week out of one year.
With such sketchy data, many marketers aren't making any attempts to reach women who've left the workforce.
Says Nina Ivon, fashion and events director for Saks Fifth Avenue in Chicago: "There's certainly an emerging lifestyle-dressing market that's been a strong one for weekend wear, and we're now probably seeing women wear that look around the home during the week, too. But I think it's as much because of more casual dress in general as because they're staying home."
One of the shifts taking place is in how women feel about working. After increasing substantially in the 1970s and 1980s, the desire to work outside the home has declined in the 1990s.
According to Roper, 53% of women now say they would prefer to stay home and take care of a house and family, compared with 43% who would prefer to have a job outside the home. In 1985, 45% said they would prefer to stay home; 51% wanted to work.
Some women are making career-to-motherhood changes simply because of the time constraints a full-time job can impose on family life.
That's why Ann Greene, 33, of Chicago, quit her job after her son was born in June. As associate editor of Key Publishers' Where Chicago, she had to spend most of her evenings at theater, gallery and restaurant openings.
"I loved my job and it was really fun, but after our son was born our priorities changed and there was no way I could be gone all day and out all evening. It's put a strain on our finances, but we felt it was important for me to be here with him and to nurse him. We feel we're gaining more than we're giving up. In time, I plan to work from home as a freelancer."
Others made the transition because they feel no one else is as qualified as they to rear their children.
"I didn't make the decision beforehand because I wasn't sure how I'd feel," says Marian Gormley, 38, of Falls Church, Va., who left her job as a software engineer for Atex Publishing Systems Corp. when her five-year-old twins were born. "But after I saw them, I quit and never went back."
She did, however, begin to work as a volunteer in the marketing department of Mothers at Home. Later, she joined its board and last year took a paid, part-time job as public relations director.
For many women, "stopping out" of the workforce translates into different incomes, attitudes, interests and needs.
Many go from "more money/less time" to "less money/more time." Anne Ladky, executive director of Women Employed, with a membership of more than 1,500, notices that kind of lifestyle change is reflected in women's buying habits.
"When they worked full time they picked up prepared foods in small packets on the way home. Also, ... they'd set aside one day to buy [children's clothing] in one store for the whole semester," she recalls. "Now they spend several days going to several stores looking for the best quality at the lowest prices and buying much less at one time."
They change their personal shopping habits as well.
"We buy more vegetarian meals and less treats," says Ms. Greene. "We also eat more leftovers and simple meals. Instead of buying produce in the supermarkets, we now go to fruit markets that are less expensive."
Reared in affluent Princeton, N.J., Ms. Greene grew up shopping in upscale stores. "Now I go to Kmart and Venture. I found you can get really nice stuff once you get over the stigma," she says.
Karen Randolph, senior VP-consumer resources for Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago, says her agency "is beginning to see a little bit of a ripple that this is a little bit of a trend. But the numbers are still so small that for most mass advertisers, it's not yet a significant segment."
Like McCann's Mr. Kim, Ms. Randolph finds the trend is occurring more at the upper end of the income strata because "it's not an economic reality for the lower end of the spectrum."
But some of the agency's work is starting to reflect the trend.
"We do DuraSoft contact lenses ... targeted to women 18-34, and we've talked in terms of fashion and their lives outside the home," Ms. Randolph says. "But our new campaign coming out at the end of the year shows women having fun in their multifaceted roles, both with their children and in the working environment."
That creative approach is something at-home moms will appreciate. "Women at home are much more apt to go along with companies that don't stereotype us," says Ms. Gormley. "If it's an ad for laundry soap, instead of showing her with her washing machine, they should show her outside on the lawn with the kids-getting grass stains on those clothes."