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Adventurous Shoppers Find Niche at Specialty Stores : The Experience Is Like an E-Ticket Ride at Disneyland

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Times Staff Writer

Renee Mohrmann has never been on a safari and doesn’t plan on taking one anytime soon. But that doesn’t stop the 30-year-old Santa Monica pathologist from browsing through the racks of safari clothes at Banana Republic.

“It’s interesting,” she said of the store’s ersatz jungle interior. “I like the travel motif; it’s an escape, an adventure, you might say.”

Mohrmann isn’t the only one who gets caught up in the likes of such kitschy environs; consumers by the thousands are flocking to specialty stores not just to buy merchandise, but a life style, too. Here’s what they’re finding:

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- A trip through Banana Republic, retail’s answer to Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, comes complete with ‘40s background music, animal noises and tom-toms.

- Esprit’s powerful “real people” fostered strong customer identification with a bold, contemporary line of clothes and a free-spirited, healthy, hip way of life.

- Ralph Lauren, long a purveyor of classic clothes and country-manor home furnishings, renovated the Rhinelander Mansion in Manhattan and turned it into the Polo/Ralph Lauren boutique, a store as richly detailed as a museum. Rooms have themes; there is an English men’s-club tableau and a country-chateau scene. A similar set-up is due on Rodeo Drive in August, complete with espresso bar.

Dreams of Summer Camp

- And Camp Beverly Hills has taken its kicky line of sportswear and sold it to customers across the country who dream of a non-existent summer camp in sunny Southern California.

In the industry the trend is called niche marketing; finding a segment of the population to sell to (in this case, baby boomers with money to burn) and giving them a never-ending supply of enticing products. When carrying the idea out, attention to detail is essential. The clerks fit the image of the clothes so well as to look cloned.

Said Betsy Sharkey, senior editor/national for Adweek magazine, “Consumers are going for a comfort level. They don’t want some teen with pimples working for $2.50 an hour telling them what they should wear to work.”

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Retailers picked a prime time for finding this niche. “The demographics of the country are dramatically shifting toward a more diverse and individual style of living,” said Jagdish N. Sheth, Ph.D., a Robert E. Brooker distinguished professor of marketing at USC. The traditional family--mom, dad, 2.5 kids and a dog--is no longer the only market retailers are after. “As more people live alone they become more individualized, and they’re going to express more creativity in the way they live. Plus, more women are in the work force, taking them outside the house and not doing so many things around the house. That gets them more into different life styles, too.”

Expect to see this retailing trend grow, the experts say. Frank Doroff, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for Bullock’s, said his company is exploring ways to build stronger images. “We’ve started on that track already, with our full-page color newspaper ads. Instead of selling a specific product, we are selling a life style. And we try to treat each area (of the store) like its own specialty store.”

Emotional Components

But there’s more to an elaborate decor than meets the eye. Strolling through a place like Banana Republic the consumer at some point becomes “disassociated with shopping,” according to Scott Fraser, Ph.D., director of undergraduate studies in psychology at USC. “By being wrapped up in the experience of a different environment, you’re really on an E-ticket ride to Fantasyland. There are emotional components that go with it, which result in the lessening of normal restraints you may have about shopping. So you may end up spending more money than you had planned. It’s luring, you’re distracted.”

The retail store as an all-encompassing entity is not entirely new; Abercrombie & Fitch outfitted sophisticated urban adventurers before Banana Republic sold khaki safari jackets off the rack. And Brooks Brothers’ ensembles for prep school and beyond spoke for a WASP-ish, upper-crust clientele decades before Ralph Lauren was born.

But today’s retailers have taken those ideas one step further. “You can find the Ralph Lauren environment at a fine men’s haberdashery,” said Lee Clow, president, executive creative director of Chiat/Day Advertising Inc., “but Lauren is selling one brand, not several. I think the freshest part of the idea is that manufacturers are creating a whole ambiance and environment, following the concept all the way through.”

“It’s part of what I would call added value marketing,” said Jerry McGee, managing director of the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather. “They are attempting to create a cachet, make it more than just a shopping experience, but a life style or an inspirational experience. It brings a wonderful mystique to the clothing, and I think it’s a super marketing trend. . . . Now you have a whole outlook, a motif, a badge that represents the adventure. It gives people a sense of belonging that they may need. And it’s a lot more fun for consumers.”

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Selling a life style wasn’t necessarily what store owners had in mind when they started their businesses. Banana Republic was founded by Mel and Patricia Ziegler, he a writer and she an artist, both working for the San Francisco Chronicle, who happened to have an affinity for khaki. It wasn’t long before they turned their love of military surplus classics into the first Banana Republic store in the Bay Area.

‘A Global Sensibility’

“We were the first two customers,” said Mel Ziegler, company president. “If there is any life style with the clothes, it really grew out of a ‘60s sensibility. We love to travel. We’re a couple of latter-day Gypsies. And we really have tailored the business to people with a global sensibility.”

The business has expanded tremendously since its humble beginnings. There are 68 stores around the country, 22 will be added by the end of the year. The company was bought by the Gap in 1983; the Zieglers maintain control over the creative aspects.

The clothes have gone decidedly upscale while maintaining moderate prices (a cotton “Costa Brava” shirt sells for $19; a 22-pocket “photojournalist’s vest” is $89). Recent additions have included a travel book section in some stores, and a new “Climate Desk,” an 800 telephone number travelers can call from anywhere in the world to check on climates--both weather and political.

Plans are in the works for a travel magazine (due early next year) and the Zieglers are looking into arranging Banana Republic tour packages. The company also recently started an in-house travel program, budgeting $500,000 annually for grants to employees.

The stores, with props like fake rhinoceros-head trophies, antique radios and battered typewriters, have become “theater in the retail area,” according to Ziegler, speaking from his San Francisco office days before he and his wife were to leave for Burma (they travel half the year). “And we’re really trying to position the company as a useful resource for people who love to travel.”

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It’s taken Esprit a few years to establish a concrete image; the label has always been associated with funky sportswear but became more focused with the establishment of stores and department-store boutiques tailor-made to show off the clothes. The Esprit “Superstore” in West Hollywood is a high-tech palace of exposed beams and matte-black shelving.

What cemented the Esprit image was the launch of its “real people” ad campaign that features a woman, sometimes alone, sometimes with her significant other, brother or children, decked out head to toe in Esprit. In the lower corner of the full-page ad is a one-paragraph stream-of-consciousness blurb that oozes quirkiness: “I’m interested in archeology because I feel a very close link to my native country. Last summer I spent two months doing my first major excavation in ancient Olympia.” The clothes are never mentioned.

“We didn’t want people to give testimonials,” said Doug Tompkins, CEO of Esprit. Speaking from company headquarters in San Francisco (he runs the business with wife Susie), he added, “We want them to be telling how they are. The message gets through to the customer that these people are more like them.”

Sara Hardie was featured in an Esprit ad two years ago when the advertising team conducted an open call for fresh-faced young women. “During the interview I was asked why I liked Esprit clothes,” the 28-year-old production manager for a Century City ad agency said. “I said I like ruffles and lace in bedrooms, but not on my clothes. I consider myself a healthy, California outdoorsy type. And the clothes are bright, they’re upbeat.”

Presenting an Attitude

Said Ogilvy & Mather’s McGee: “I think this is a ‘be me’ kind of advertising. It’s an attitude of, ‘We’re aloof and above and beyond that. We are Esprit people and we don’t have to talk about our clothes.’ It certainly breaks the frame of the normal retail kind of advertising.”

The store’s appeal to the consumer, according to Betsy Sharkey of Adweek, “Is that increasingly you have an upscale consumer who doesn’t want to make any decision, he wants to be able to be presented with the ideas, fashion or otherwise. You can walk into a place like this, and if it has a kind of life-style image they are trying to achieve, it can be put together for (the consumer). It’s a way of taking a risk without taking a risk.”

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Exactly how the trend evolves will depend on changes in demographics, changes in consumers’ needs and how saturated the market becomes with specialty stores. “And you have to wonder, too,” said Sharkey of Adweek, “with people like the Zieglers and the Tompkins, as their life styles change, will the stores continue to reflect that?”

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