Shopping Trends From East To West Coast

In this photo from Tuesday, May 19, 2009, a woman looks over clothing at a Gap store in San Francisco. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Gap cardigans sold like hot cakes in balmy Miami, and new Boston-based grads spent their gift money on spectator-style Coach purses. In San Francisco, Sephora shoppers sought out something new.

That's a snapshot of shopping trends at three national retailers in three cities of varying personality and climate on a late spring day. The Associated Press asked them to track what was popular and craft mini profiles of the average customer. The idea was to find out what drives sales. Is it the weather? The news? The calendar?

All of the above, according to the companies and consumer behaviorists, but nothing is more important than finding products consumers crave - and that's the multimillion dollar question in this recession.

Next comes weather. This particular day was partly sunny in San Francisco, with a high temperature in the 60s; Boston was clear skies and 70; and Miami was wet, although still warm. Trouble in the U.S. auto industry dominated the news, along with Congressional oversight of credit cards. It was a Tuesday.

"You might be in the mindset of buying clothes for that particular kind of day," says Lars Perner, assistant professor of the clinical marketing department of University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. "In clothing, you have to be able to visualize yourself in a particular situation, and clothing purchases are caused by the expectation of a change in season."

There's also the issue of image, notes Geoffrey Miller, author of "Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior." Shoppers buy brands with a personality deemed appropriate for their public personas, he says. "What people pay most attention to is their little peer world. They only care about the global economy or even fashion trends when they trickle down locally."

But Perner says shoppers are also copycats, whether they know it or not: If style influencers start wearing something, the trend can spread. So a paparazzi shot of a celebrity - or, better yet, first lady Michelle Obama - wearing an identifiable look is likely to spur sales "considerably," Perner says.

Increasingly, ethics and ecological concerns are also on the minds of consumers who are looking at how and where an item was made and the sustainability of the materials, says Miller.

Here's what filled shopping bags on a single day in Boston, San Francisco and Miami:

BOSTON:

It had been a rainy and cool early spring so when the weather changed for the better, there was a shift from basic colors to brights, reports David Duplantis, senior vice president of retail, merchandising, marketing and planning at Coach. Two-tone spectator styles were especially popular, not surprising for a city that has a conservative fashion image.

Parents shopping with graduates steered them toward larger totes, and those shopping for gifts went for leather agendas or wallets - both at lower price points.

Coach, Sephora and Gap all find a strong workday business in Boston, with favorite products at the beauty chain including the Sephora-brand Calypso Soul Eyeshadow Palette with shades of blue, green and gold, and Living Proof's No Frizz hair product, a new item.

Customers clearly had moved on to summer, even though there are weeks left in spring, says Melissa Duffy, regional director of New England for Gap. However, with the region's unpredictable weather, the cardigan sweater has been a top item in womenswear. "When you're thinking of Cape Cod, you're thinking of whether you'll need sweaters or tank tops and T-shirts."

The CambridgeSide Galleria Gap alternately draws in college students and tourists, says Duffy. "You can spot the tourists," she notes. "The difference in their shopping pattern is that they gravitate toward items with the Gap logo, especially the international clientele."

SAN FRANCISCO:

The overseas visitor is a good customer in the Bay Area, too, according to the retailers.

Gap's Market Street store sees them mostly in the morning, and they buy more heavily branded items as well as layering pieces "because people don't expect it to be so cool here in San Francisco," says spokeswoman Kim Terry. This location also is selling a lot of hoodie sweatshirts, even for kids. Men are buying heavyweight polos and girls are into leggings.

"Layering does well in the summer - oddly," Terry says.

The pocket-tank dress is considered a key item for Gap from coast to coast, says creative director Patrick Robinson, but while purple has emerged as a popular color overall, black and white are favorites in San Francisco.

Robinson says people are taking different routes to get to the same place: a sense of rebirth that comes with the onset of the summer vacation season. That tank dress, for example, is being worn with leggings and T-shirts underneath in San Francisco, but Floridians are using it as a swimsuit coverup.

The Sephora shopper in San Francisco likes new things - like the self-tanning mist offered by Lindsay Lohan's new beauty line Sevin Nyne, says Allison Slater, vice president of retail marketing at Sephora. The Powell Street store tends to have more health-aware customers, so natural products, including Lavanila's The Healthy Deodorant, score a lot of interest.

"San Francisco, historically, for us is a utilitarian town," says Coach's Duplantis, although on this day 70 percent of the traffic at 190 Post Street were tourists. However, everyone was buying the same thing: functional, flat cross-body bags.

MIAMI:

Sun products get the prime real estate at Sephora, located near South Beach. "A lot of the population in that store is Latin American tourists buying products they can't get at home. They're looking for the products to treat sun damage," Slater says. Among the most popular are Kinerase Peptide Intensive Treatment and Korres Yoghurt Sun Cooling Gel.

Sun and skin-care products are likely to be self-purchases, whereas fragrance and some color cosmetics are often gifts, she explains. The hottest colors here are bright blues and other pretty tropical shades.

"People aren't wearing dull makeup," Slater says. "Beauty is instant gratification, making you feel good right now - at an affordable price."

Coach customers here usually are late-day shoppers, but were in earlier because of the dreary day, Duplantis says. Another aberration: Instead of buying big, flashy patent leather or metallic bags, there were a lot of local moms looking for end-of-year teacher gifts, notably jewelry and key fobs, both of which fall into the under $50 category.

If Mom also picked something up for herself, it often was the Sabrina bag from the Madison collection, in peach and purple patent or gray leather.

Most gift occasions are high points for Coach, Duplantis says, providing some stability to the accessories-heavy brand in an otherwise shaky luxury market. "The world has changed and Coach is not immune to that, but Mother's Day, Father's Day, Valentine's Day, Christmas - we see incredible spikes, more than apparel."

The Gap store at the Aventura Mall counts on consistency of its clientele, says Terri Lapido, regional visual manager for Florida. Mothers and their children come in the morning and tourists later in the day. The store is seeing a lot of people who packed their special sunny-getaway clothes but forgot the basics, which this season include a cardigan, cuffed T-shirt and the belted linen cargo short.

Rain isn't always the enemy, Lapido says. "If people can't go to the beach, they shop."
By Samantha Crichell
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