When the economy was booming and credit was easy, consumers cared less about the long term – in their apparel choices as much as in their savings account.

But in the aftermath of the recession, shoppers became more discerning, looking for better quality at a good price. The “new normal” is about perceived value – and it varies depending on each shopper’s personal socioeconomic level.

“Consumers care about quality, but they care about matching it to price,” says retail consultant Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, Miami.  “One retail constant is the concept of ‘good,’ ‘better,’ ‘best.’  Shoppers want to choose the best they can get within a price point.  Frequently they want the best, but depending on what they can spend, they will buy the good item.”

"[Quality] is probably one of the most important components of our merchandising philosophy."

-Martine Reardon,
Macy's

More than two-thirds of consumers (68%) prefer to buy apparel that is higher in quality than more fashionable, according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle MonitorTM survey.  Men (77%) are more likely than women (61%) to choose quality over fashion.  And the appreciation for better quality increases with consumers’ age: 49% for those age 13-to-24, 60% for 25-to-34 year olds, 74% among those 35-to-55 and 84% among shoppers age 56-to-70.

Macy’s is quite aware of the disparity and, because of its size, takes advantage of its ability to appeal to a wide range of consumers.  Retail consultancy dunnhumbyUSA has worked with Macy’s on its My Macy’s program.  Katherine Black, dunnhumby’s senior vice-president of client solutions, pointed out during a session at last week’s National Retail Federation convention that the quality quotient depends on the customer.

“Some customers really value quality, and to them it might have to do with how frequently they wear something, the touch and feel of the fabric or the type of materials used,” Black says. “Another customer might only expect to wear something for a short time, so quality for them means it looks great, looks fashionable and will stand up to use for the next six weeks. No two customers have the same perception of quality.  Macy’s does a great job of offering a range of price points and materials to appeal to a broad range of customers.”

Macy’s Martine Reardon, executive vice-president of marketing, said during the NRF session that quality “is probably one of the most important components of our merchandising philosophy.”

“Quality certainly goes back to value,” Reardon notes. “We don’t really look at price as the reason why somebody wants something.  It’s really, ‘What is the quality they’re getting and what are they paying for that product?'”

When shopping for apparel, more than half of all consumers (58%) define “good quality” as “durable/long-lasting,” followed by “made of good strong fibers/fabrics/materials” (23%) and “made well” (12%), according to the Monitor.  Additionally, 85% of consumers define a “good value” as “a good price/you get what you pay for.”

Stylesight’s Ilyssa Summerfield, senior vice-president, market intelligence, says post-recession consumers now insist on extraordinary quality, service and craftsmanship — but also demand value.

“At the high end of the widening income gap, many Americans are shopping like it’s 2007 again, but the income-squeezed middle class is carefully choosing how they spend their hard-earned money.  To turn these shoppers into buyers, retailers need to offer quality goods at the right price,” Summerfield explains.

More than 6 out of 10 consumers (62%) agree that cotton clothing tends to be higher in quality than synthetic clothes, the Monitor shows.  And 64% disagree that the higher the price of a clothing item, the better quality the item will be.

However, consumers do have high expectations when entering better stores: 61% have very high quality expectations for apparel offered at higher-end specialty stores, followed by higher-end department stores (60%) and general department stores (35%), Monitor data reveal.

Cohen says consumers realize not all retailers are measured by the same quality yardstick. “But some consumers feel they’ve been cheated by retailers who promise high quality.  Those that do are clearly rewarded because they delivered on their promise, be it Kate Spade or Target.”

Unfortunately, 73% of shoppers says today’s apparel does not last as long as it used to, according to the Monitor survey.

“Brands that were once trusted are losing credibility as they abandon quality for improved margins,” Summerfield says.  “Better retailers should make an effort to maintain their commitment to quality and market that message to their customers.”

Consumers expect suits and outerwear to last about six years, sweaters about five years, jeans and dress shirts about four years, and T-shirts to last three years, Monitor data show.

Summerfield says the consumer still has a discount-driven mentality yet, “cost-conscious consumers are choosing to open their wallets for goods that deliver on both quality and cost.”