Washington area women don't particularly like to shop. As a group, they don't crave the latest fashions and buy half of their clothes on sale.
Among the stores, J.C. Penney and Marshall's are magnets for families shopping together, while divorcees favor Loehmann's and widows are more likely to drop by Sears.
And in the battle between the malls, Tysons Corner Center is thriving, while just across the street Tysons II Galleria is languishing.
Those are some of the conclusions of a new study of the buying habits and attitudes of Washington area women.
The study, recently completed by a group of researchers at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., is based on the responses of 2,000 women from the communities surrounding Tysons Corner who agreed to complete a 31-page questionnaire. Sponsors of the study included some of the area's biggest retailers -- J.C. Penney, Talbots, Woodward & Lothrop -- as well as The Washington Post.
The women -- more than half of whom said they found shopping to be a hassle -- were asked primarily about their purchases in, and their opinions about, the 14 largest retail chains in the area. Only women were surveyed because women typically make 70 percent of clothing purchases.
The authors conceded that the sample was not representative of the entire Washington area, with respondents tending to be older and more well-to-do. Based on the demographics of the area, the sample also was less racially mixed.
But the study's conclusions mirrored what many observers have sensed about the strengths and weaknesses of department stores in one of the nation's most competitive -- and prosperous -- retail markets.
Much attention was paid by the study's authors -- and the women they interviewed -- to Seattle-based Nordstrom, which opened its first area store at Tysons in 1988 and another this year at Pentagon City. The conclusion: Nordstrom has taken the area by storm. After only two years and with just two locations, Nordstrom was cited as being the store "most often shopped" by nearly 8 percent of those surveyed. Even among occasional shoppers, Nordstrom won accolades for service, selection and quality, despite its higher prices.
The cash register tells the difference. According to the study, Nordstrom is ringing up $400 to $500 per year for every square foot of retail space, nearly double that of market leaders Woodies and Hecht's.
Much of Nordstrom's success, the report said, seems to have come at the expense of Woodies, which lost more than one-third of its share of "primary shoppers" since Nordstrom and Macy's entered the Washington market. According to the study, about 24 percent of those interviewed said Woodies was the store they shopped most often several years ago. Today, the survey shows it is slightly less than 15 percent.
"Woodies has been knocked right out of the middle-to-up segment by Nordstrom and Macy's and now find themselves facing a very strong Hecht Co. on the way into the middle-to-down market," said Douglas J. Tigert, a Babson professor and one of the study's authors. "With their higher prices than Hecht's, it is going to be hard to compete for them."
James Wells, executive vice president for stores at Woodies, said yesterday that he and other executives had not seen the report. Asked about its conclusions, he said that Nordstrom probably had grabbed market share from every major retailer at Tysons, including Woodies, but added that the expansion of the mall had increased the geographic area from which it draws its customers, increasing the size of the total pie for everyone.
And service at Woodies? "I think we have always been known for good service in the marketplace," Wells said. "Because of Nordstrom, we have made it better. We are better today than we have ever been."
Better, perhaps, but for Pat Mauro not good enough. Entering Tysons Corner mall with a Woodies's bag in her hand Thursday evening, she had no doubt about which department store she preferred.
"If I have a choice, I always go to Nordstrom. It is a classy place and has good service," Mauro said. "The prices are maybe a tad higher, but I don't mind paying $2 or $3 more. It's a nice operation."
Brenda Harris, however, said she remains a big fan of Washington's homegrown department stores.
"I shop Woodies and Hecht's equally," she said. "I usually can't find what I'm looking for at Nordstrom."
Among their regular customers, Woodies and Hecht's won points in the survey for having merchandise at the "right" price in the desired colors and sizes.
In the broader survey, neither Woodies nor Hecht's was rated particularly low by shoppers on any of the two dozen criteria used. But they weren't rated particularly high, either -- the study used words like "weak" and "pedestrian" to describe Hecht's image and "muddled" in the case of Woodies. That is often the case for department stores that must cater to so many tastes and incomes in order to remain the area's largest retailers. Woodies and Hecht's, for instance, still sell more of almost every fashion item than any retailer except for shoes (Nordstrom), jeans (The Gap) and winter coats (Burlington Coat Factory), the study found.
More specialized stores, by contrast, catered to narrow audiences and left much stronger, clearer impressions on shoppers in the survey: discounter Loehmann's and teen fashion retailer T.J. Maxx are known for their lower prices, the Limited for its hip styles, Talbots for its classic fashions and Bloomingdale's for its exciting displays and merchandise.
Just as types of shoppers tend to cluster at certain stores, so too with certain malls, the study concluded. The upscale Pentagon City mall and discounter Potomac Mills were at two ends of the spectrum in Northern Virginia, with shoppers at Pentagon City mall being young and working full-time and those at Potomac Mills more family-oriented and lower in income.
Tysons Corner Center led the pack with a 23 percent of the respondents saying they shopped there most often, while Tysons II Galleria was dead last with 2 percent.
Susan Lawrence, a self-described enthusiastic shopper, apparently spoke for many of Northern Virginia's customers as she moved through Tysons Corner Center on Thursday.
"I took off a whole week a while ago to do my Christmas shopping and I came here every day," she said. "There's so much here."
Lawrence has never been to Tysons II, only several hundred yards away.