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Shopping Catches On With Men

December 8, 2008

By Sandra Guy

Bill Flesch is shopping for himself this holiday season, looking out for the business-casual clothes essential to him now that he is involved in company-sponsored social and charitable groups.

"My wardrobe runs two extremes — either a pair of jeans and a T-shirt or a three-piece suit," said Flesch, whose father, Gordon, founded the Gordon Flesch Co., a distributor of Canon printing and imaging services and products where Bill Flesch is executive vice president.

Flesch, 50, has bought a pair of moleskin pants and a sports blazer, and he believes in spending a higher price for a higher quality. Flesch plans to spend 35 percent of his wardrobe budget — into the thousands of dollars — on business casual clothes.

"The days of the crumpled-up khakis and crew neck T-shirts are hopefully starting to wane," Flesch said.

Ironically, the country's economic tailspin may be pushing men to spend more on clothes.

"The way you look and act and carry yourself is very important today," Flesch said.

Flesch is among a growing number of men whom retailers are pursuing because they spend their own money, and plenty of it, on fashion, electronics and accessories. A study by market research firm NPD Group revealed that 52.4 percent of men surveyed said they would spend $100 to $499 on clothing this holiday season, while 50.8 percent of women said they would spend that amount.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, said men are buying more food, clothing and "toys" such as furniture, iPods and outdoor grills for themselves.

"The male consumer is the new growth opportunity," Cohen said.

Consider the lifestyle changes in the last 30 years: In 1975, men bought 25 percent of all men's products sold. Women bought the rest. Today, men buy 75 percent of men's products, Cohen said.

Guys also are shopping with friends who can offer advice, a characteristic more often associated with women.

"Men are finding friends — they don't have to be romantic friends — who make shopping a social occasion. This is a new phenomenon," Cohen said.

David L. Fisher, executive vice president and general merchandise manager for men and kids at Bloomingdale's, said the retailer's men's tailored clothing business remains strong, despite the economic meltdown.

"The three-piece suit accounts for 12 [percent] to 15 percent of my suit sales," he said, noting that Bloomingdale's suits range in price from $1,100 to $2,500 apiece.

The menswear market, put at $6.2 billion, is still dwarfed by the women's $22.3 billion apparel market, according to a Mastercard SpendingPulse survey.

But retailers realize they can attract male shoppers in other ways, like a $795 limited-edition Beatles iPod that Bloomingdale's is marketing.

Of course, men may be staking their ground with these items because they are losing influence over the purchases of a more traditional area of interest: big-screen TVs.

John Abt, co-president of Glenview-based Abt Electronics, said as big-screen TVs have become more stylish, women have played a larger role in their purchase.

"In the past, the guy picked the TV for the man's room," Abt said. "It's become more of a fashion statement, and women are having a greater say."

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