6 Min ReadCulture 22 June 2020
A few months after I left my corporate job as the Head of Merchandising for Old Navy Online, I walked into the Everlane concept store in preparation for an upcoming meeting at their corporate office. As I looked around trying to find an outfit, a feeling of alienation came over me. From the perky twenty-something sales associate that looked at me askance when I walked in, to the array of androgynous, box-llooking, nondescript apparel, it was clear that I didn't belong. I finally landed on a streamlined navy dress that was seemingly appropriate for my meeting — a nothing special, medium quality, basic dress that felt like a millennial uniform. I never wore that dress again.
Many other women in my community also felt forgotten by many of the DTC brands focused on social media marketing, "cool girl" messaging, and most of all, a product aesthetic and quality that missed the mark.
At the time, a swarm of DTC (direct-to-consumer) brands were coming into their own — each of them targeting millennials. Brand after brand was cropping up with streamlined basics, a claim of quality, and often a particular gender-neutral aesthetic that felt like it had nothing to do with me.
I realized other women in my community were converging around a similar complaint. They wanted chic, high-quality products but struggled to find pieces that felt special yet appropriate for their busy lifestyle. They also felt forgotten by many of the DTC brands focused on social media marketing, "cool girl" messaging, and most of all, a product aesthetic and quality that missed the mark.
Women at every age, especially older women, are experiencing a new wave of power, influence, and relevance across industries, yet that same generation of women is being seriously overlooked as consumers in the fashion space. Where are the modern, cool (in their own right), online luxury brands that understand and speak to an older customer?
The majority of women over 40 that we heard from don't feel included or represented by the fashion marketing they see on social media.
With Bells & Becks, I set out to solve what I recognized as a product-void in the marketplace, but over time, it's become clear that there's a much bigger issue at play. Older women are still largely ignored by modern fashion brands. Whether it's their current style of social media marketing, their lack of understanding when it comes to mature women's functional needs and quality expectations, or simply their product aesthetic, most brands in the DTC space target a younger demographic.
Perhaps the most grievous mistake brands make here is failing to connect with women over 40 on social media. Digital marketing has evolved as one of the most effective forms of brand building. But here's the issue, while it's true that millennials grew up with technology, there's an assumption that it's predominantly this younger demographic that engages (and purchases) online, especially in the fashion space. This is simply not correct.
In a 2020 consumer survey, 68% of people ages 35 – 54 (and over half of those over 55) reported daily Facebook use, and nearly 40% are on Instagram daily, as well. When asked about factors that impact purchasing decisions, close to 50% said their purchase behavior is influenced by someone they follow on Facebook — 41% say the same of Instagram.
Older women are active participants on social media and are just as clued in as their younger peers. In a recent survey we conducted as a brand, we found social media was the single most important factor driving awareness of new brands and purchasing, and yet, the majority of women over 40 that we heard from don't feel included or represented by the fashion marketing they see on social media.
Another factor that brands fail to notice is the tremendous buying power held by older women. Some demographic data suggests millennial purchasing power is the strongest, and so many legacy and newer brands target these dollars for good reason. It's no wonder that DTC brands coming up during the age of social media marketing would largely focus on a group of digitally native purchasers. But women over 40 have massive spending power — Gen Xers have been reported to spend as much as one-third more each year than their millennial counterparts — and don't find purchasing luxury products to be a serious stretch. We have money to spend, and we're looking for a special product that also delivers incredible quality.
As consumers begin to make decisions based on sustainability practices and the environmental impact of the fashion industry, DTC brands have done a great job targeting millennials with a "less is more" mindset focused on fewer, better quality things. For grownup women, however, this is hardly a new idea. We've embraced this mentality for years and understand that an impeccably produced, high-quality piece is worth the investment and lasts for years to come.
Older women are still largely ignored by fashion brands.
Over the years, I've learned that style is only one factor of many influencing the wardrobe decisions of women over 40. When I launched Bells & Becks, I was entirely focused on distinctive, chic, and feminine shoes for a reason; I couldn't find them myself. Grownup women are comfortable in their own skin, have great taste, and still care about appearance. This truth has finally grown more culturally accepted. We may be aging, but we're still chic and fabulous — in the extreme, think J. Lo today vs. Betty White at 50.
That being said, our tastes and functional needs do evolve. Finding wearable clothing and shoes that are also chic is difficult, and most that deliver on style and femininity are only available at the designer level — and certainly not from DTC brands targeting millennials.
Our recent survey suggests that older women want something special with an element of style but it must be wearable. When we looked into how brands are addressing functional needs, only 22% of respondents over 40 said they find online brands that cater to their age while also meeting their fashion needs, and 65% felt most brands are either geared toward younger women or are too focused on style and sacrifice comfort.
As I consider the context of fashion and function during the COVID-19 era, it's clear that the tides were already shifting toward women wanting function in their wardrobes. Now, more than ever, comfort is critical but that doesn't mean we have to sacrifice style.
Reflecting back, I'm so grateful for that very stark purchasing experience at the Everlane store. It reinforced so much of what I'd been feeling as I was getting older in my career and personal life, and it was around that time that I decided to launch my company. I'm a mother, a wife, and an entrepreneur; this year, I turned 50. All of these things are true, and I'm also someone that loves (and will always love) fashion.
What started as a mission to fill a quality and aesthetic void I saw in the footwear space turned into something much bigger. I ended up becoming part of the movement to address the needs of grownup women who are confident, seeking true luxury quality, have great taste, and are equally savvy online consumers.
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3 Min Read
"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.
Find A Need And Fill It
I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.
Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.
Have Working Capital And Credit
There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.
I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.
Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.
My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.
Know Your Product Thoroughly
I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?
My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.
My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!
More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.
Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth
I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.
I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.
Delegate From The Bottom Up
I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.
In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.