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Talbots Still Can't Find Its Way

The retailer's warning highlights merchandise blunders and troubles in the baby-boomer segment.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Shares of



were ripped Wednesday after the women's apparel chain admitted to more sales missteps and offered yet another bleak outlook for the year.

The shortfall is just the latest for women's clothing retailers that are struggling to find the right merchandise to attract the ever-growing baby-boomer segment. Talbots, in particular, has been grappling with weaker-than-expected results all year amid blunders in its promotional strategy and merchandise offerings.

The Hingham, Mass.-based company admitted Wednesday that a midseason sales event did little to attract customers to its stores, while merchandise missed the mark.

Talbots said total sales for the fall season are expected to be $65 million to $75 million less than what it predicted in August, when Chief Executive Trudy Sullivan speculated that September and October would top the sluggish sales seen in the spring and summer.

Same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, are now expected to drop by the mid- to high-single-digit percentage. Previously, Talbots had forecast flat same-store sales.

For the six-month period ending Feb. 2, the company now anticipates a loss of 25 cents to 35 cents a share, including about 16 cents in charges. That's a dramatic reversal from Talbots' prediction in August for a profit of 42 cents to 48 cents a share, with 8 cents to 10 cents in charges.

Shares of Talbots recently were down $1.26, or 8.2%, to $14.03, hitting a 52-week low.

Sullivan, who took over as CEO in August, said in a conference call Wednesday that results from Talbots' midseason sale in September were particularly disappointing. The sale is one of four that take place at the same time every year, and the company relies on them heavily to drive traffic.

But Adrienne Tennant, an analyst for Friedman Billings Ramsey, believes that these sales could be doing more harm than good. She says Talbots' sales events have trained customers to wait for the big promotions rather than buy merchandise on the spot.

Talbots is now considering abandoning the sales, opting for the more conventional practice of cutting prices only when it becomes clear that an item won't sell at full price.

Although Sullivan did point to issues plaguing other retailers -- such as a weakening macroeconomic environment and warm fall temperatures that discouraged customers from buying boots and sweaters -- she also acknowledged an unappealing merchandise mix at the company, particularly at the Talbots chain.

The company says it is focused on finding ways to improve the business, hiring a global consulting firm to assist with a strategic review of everything from operations to store growth to productivity. It's also looking to fill two key positions: a top merchant for Talbots and a president for the J. Jill division.

Talbots is among a slew of other retailers catering to women over 35 that have

lost their way. Earlier this month,

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said it expected a

hefty loss for the third quarter. Brands such as


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Ann Taylor


have also been struggling.

Analyst Richard Jaffe of Stifel Nicolaus believes that companies such as Talbots are stuck in the past.

"We believe that the shifting U.S. population has reached a tipping point in which the growing baby boom consumers now outweigh in the importance the declining population of the earlier generation, the baby boomers' parents," he wrote in his latest research.

"The solution lies with the retailer, in their merchandising and marketing efforts and their ability to stay true to their defined purpose: serving the lifestyle needs of a 40 to 60 year old woman," he added. "This entails allowing an older consumer to slip away and a younger more affluent consumer to take her place."

Tennant adds that by staying focused on their original customers, retailers such as Talbots are missing out on a whole generation of new customers who now fit the 40-to-60-year-old demographic.

Sullivan also noted the missed opportunity.

"Nobody is clearly winning in the 35+ consumer space right now so the clear message from this consumer is that she's not turned on by the offer and we think it can be a lot more fun and energetic and whimsical and even sexy," she said during the conference call. "This is a really great consumer and we really need to absolutely wow her with this irresistible product and none of us have done that. I think we've just defined her as way too traditional and dowdy."

Although many retailers went after 35+ women with great success -- namely because of the high disposable income within that demographic -- Tennant points to the numerous challenges. For one, women in that age group don't physically grow out of their clothes the way a teenager would. At the same time, they are not as quick to replenish their wardrobe frequently, so what sits in their closets from last year can still be worn today.

"The product looks very similar and the customer looks very similar," Tennant says. "There's no compelling fashion trend to update wardrobe."

Retailers should be blamed for not giving older women the incentive to shop again, resorting to the same old formula that worked for them in the past. But Tennant says that the 50-year-old woman today is different from the 50-year-old woman from 10 years ago, and that retailers must keep up with the changes.

"It's a very fine line that they walk," she says.