Talbots reaches for young clientele, abandoning mature customers?

Talbots mistakenly chasing youth instead of core customersIt's a happy day at the headquarters of retailer Talbots -- analysts are forecasting that tomorrow, the chain will report its first profit in six quarters.

Perhaps your grandmother will celebrate her favorite store's good fortune by popping into her local Talbots for a new brightly-colored blazer or pair of sturdy, appropriate slacks. But if all goes according to plan, she may find herself disappointed. Part of what has financial experts calling for a Talbots comeback is a new strategy -- the company says it wants to bring younger women into the stores.

A quick visit to the chain's Web site confirms this. A dewy young model graces the home page. There's a $109 pair of 3.5-inch heel metallic strappy wedges for sale. And a category called 'Love It,' which is not a phrase I often hear tossed around at country-club teas.

For the moment, that's where Talbots' efforts end, which means the majority of the offerings are stuck in a strange limbo: modest, no-frills items displayed on young, leggy models. Case in point: this is what you get when you click 'short skirts' on Talbots' Web sites -- and I don't believe anyone, no matter their age, considers these short skirts.

The bottom line: Talbots needs to figure out who they are, and quickly, if they want to stay on financial forecasters' good side. And while they're at it, they should consider this idea: recession-inspired can't-miss strategies (go young! go young!) come and go. But there are few stores out there catering to stylish seniors -- and even fewer with such loyal customers. Does Talbots really want to give up that niche to compete with J. Crew, Banana Republic and a thousand other retailers under the sun?

As my grandmother would say, it's always best to stay true to who you are.

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