SAN FRANCISCO -- If the financial results of apparel retailers like Chico's (CHS) - Get Chico's FAS, Inc. Report, Talbots (TLB) and AnnTaylor (ANN) are an indication of their customers' shopping habits, you'd think all women over age 35 are sitting at home dressed in their pajamas.

How else to explain why so many women have stopped flocking to these stores the way they used to?

Chico's, once a Wall Street darling for its fast growth and soaring demand, has been grappling for the past year with a sudden sales slowdown and merchandise missteps. Late Wednesday, it posted a 28% decline in second-quarter earnings and missed analysts' targets, and shares were tumbling 10% in recent trading.

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, another retailer catering to older women, was plunging 22% after its own earnings miss. Likewise, Talbots and AnnTaylor each reported weaker second-quarter results last week after the retailers required heavy markdowns to move merchandise.

Amid the weak results for the sector, retailers like


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( GYMB) have abandoned their efforts to go after women 35 and up.

So what gives? These women aren't refusing to shop and instead resorting to their old fuzzy slippers. Rather, analysts say the shoppers are spurning specialty stores, where merchandise has been off the mark, and heading to department storeslike

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"There's no doubt that the department store business has gotten sharper in focusing on this customer," says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a retail consulting and investment banking firm. "They have raised the bar in their performance. I think they realized this is their meat and potatoes."

Davidowitz says department stores have done a better job of offering a wide selection of labels for older women, learning from past mistakes that allowed specialty chains to step in and fill the void.

At the same time, specialty retailers' merchandise stumbles are making it more difficult for them to hold onto their customers.

Candace Corlett, a partner with consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail, says that too many retailers now play into the stereotypes of older women instead of coming up with the right fashion to fit their lifestyles.

"Most of us are not desperate for a new T-shirt or a new skirt," Corlett says. "The merchandise has to reach out and sing to us."

According to a recent survey conducted by WSL Strategic Retail, 63% of the respondents within the ages of 40 and 60 said they are buying fewer clothes this year vs. last year, in large part because they are not finding the clothes they want.

"The presentation and the merchandise are missing the mark," Corlett says.

Nonetheless, the demographic is still considered attractive to retailers, and for good reason. According to the NPD Group, based out of Port Washington, N.Y., women aged 35 to 54 generated an estimated $32.6 billion in apparel sales in the 12 months ended in June. That amounts to about 31.4% of the women's apparel market, right behind the 18-to-34 age group, which makes up about 34.5%.

That may be one reason why AnnTaylor has decided to develop a new concept targeting the upper end of this age group. The company recently appointed Mark Mendelson as president of a yet-to-be named brand aimed at the "modern boomer" segment. It is expected to be unveiled next fall.

"We believe that the boomer market we are targeting has been the most significantly underserved and represents a huge opportunity for us," said CEO Kay Krill in a statement.

But Krill's words are reminiscent of Gap's when it introduced Forth & Towne, a concept aimed at the over-35 demographic that eventually was shuttered after 18 months.

Davidowitz says he does not expect AnnTaylor's new brand to take off, calling it a distraction from the company's other problems.

"When the main event is doing poorly, you focus all your resources and talent to fix it because if you don't fix it, you don't have a company," he says.

Meanwhile, for companies like Gymboree, which strayed from its core market of children when it introduced the now-defunct Janeville for older women, sometimes it pays to stick with what you know.

On Janeville's Web site, the brand's parting words to consumers were to wish them luck: "May you always find fashion that complements your personal style."