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How We Shop: A trip to the mall with a fashion business expert

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The entrance of a Nordstrom store.

This spring, retailers like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Anthropologie are carrying lots of pinks, pastels and "happy" styles. Tim Boyle/Getty Images

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When you shop for new clothes for the office, or a vacation, or a wedding, you’re faced with what can feel like a dizzying amount of options. What you probably don’t stop to think about is the choices retailers already made for you, and how it came to be that competing stores in the mall stock clothes that seem, well, awfully similar. For the latest edition of our series How We Shop, Marketplace’s Marielle Segarra visited the Short Hills Mall in New Jersey with someone who follows these things very closely: Shawn Grain Carter, a merchandising professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Shawn Grain Carter is a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a former fashion buyer. (Marielle Segarra/Marketplace)

As we began our shopping trip at Nordstrom, Shawn Grain Carter immediately spotted a long, loose-fitting dress with pastel stripes: blue, green and a shade of pink that’s apparently hot this year.

“It’s what I call a blush pink,” she said. “And as you can see it’s in a print, but you’re also going to see it showing up as a solid.”

She also pointed out two dresses. The one on the right –– turquoise, with pink flowers –– is a best seller, Grain Carter said. She knew that because there were only two sizes left. Not the case for the dress directly next to it.

(Marielle Segarra/Marketplace)

Grain Carter, a merchandising professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, used to be a buyer for Bergdorf Goodman and Ann Taylor. Buyers make purchasing decisions for a retailer: things like how many dresses or tops or shorts to stock, and in which patterns and colors. They look at trends from fashion shows, she said. They think about what’s going on in the world, they look at the retailer’s sales and they gather intel on the ground.

“Every time I come to the mall, I’m looking, and I know what’s working and what’s not,” she said. “I also look at customers’ shopping bags.”

We headed to Neiman Marcus, where a few mannequins stood on a lime green area rug at the entrance. One had a flower behind its ear, another in its hand. They wore brightly colored dresses –– orange, yellow, green and pink. 

(Marielle Segarra/Marketplace)

“Look at this dress, which is a color block,” she said. “This color block dress is very 60s.”

At another store, I spotted a shirt that said “feeling optimistic” in a 60s-era font. The 60s references, the bright colors, Grain Carter said they’re all sending a message: The sun is out, the skies are blue, it’s been such a tough year, don’t you deserve a little happiness? 

(Marielle Segarra/Marketplace)

She pointed out a pink and green floral crop top with poofy sleeves. “A happy, happy purchase,” she said.

“Another best seller,” she said. “This little top, it’s gone. This is all that’s left.”

At Anthropologie, the first thing we saw was a mannequin wearing a eyelet dress. We’d seen a few already. They’re usually white, but this one was bright yellow. “I call it sunflower yellow. It looks just like a sunflower,” Grain Carter said. “So now you know, this is a trend.”

(Marielle Segarra/Marketplace)

We saw a lot of the same trends over and over. Anthropologie also had a floral top with poofy sleeves, like the one we saw at Neiman Marcus. And that eyelet dress also comes in, wouldn’t you know it, pink. 

“Pink is the color right now: dusty pink, bubblegum pink, magenta pink,” she said. “They’re saying we believe in pink.”

Why is it that all these stores believe in the same colors and silhouettes and patterns?

“They consult what we call fashion services,” Grain Carter said.

There’s one called WGSN. It predicts what people will be feeling two years from now and translates those themes into colors. For 2023, it sees emotions like numbness and hope. And it’s advising retailers to bet on clothing and accessories in honeycomb yellow, jade green, and dark oak.

Right now, retailers seem to have settled on pink. As I told Grain Carter, I take issue with that: Pink is not my color. She didn’t miss a beat.

“We’re gonna always have it in white and black for you,” she said.

At LOFT, there was another eyelet dress, this time in a kind of peachy pink. 

“Here we go. Pink again,” I told Grain Carter. “I actually like this one, though.”

“Ah, you see?! You like,” she said. “You know what, your eye is getting used to it.”

This is what happens, she told me. We see a style over and over. Maybe our friends and family are wearing it, and we come around. 

There’s something else at work here, too. Retailers have long pushed the idea that if you buy that pink eyelet dress you will feel good, happy, alive again. After the past year, a lot of us want to believe that.

Before we left the mall, Grain Carter pointed down to her feet. She was wearing her own post-vaccine, feel-good purchase: a pair of black Gucci sandals.

Have your shopping habits changed lately? How are you thinking about clothing? Tell us your story.

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