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Teens Forcing Retailers to Take Notice

They're cool, hip, intelligent and social. When they shop, they know just what they want and they'll drop $100 to get it, no problem. Whatever they like becomes the next big trend.

They are today's American teen-agers, a group whose surprisingly powerful economic clout, confidence and trend-setting habits have caught the attention of national retailers.

Whether they're termed speeders, Generation Y or millennials, American teen-agers today are the richest ever, spending a projected $153 billion this year, experts say.

In addition, many teen-agers have assumed the role of household "chief technology officer," giving them influence over another $330 billion in family spending last year, Rand Youth Poll researchers said.

While teen-agers constitute only 8 percent of the population _ about 24 million people _ their spending is mighty, and their numbers will grow until 2010, according to the Census Bureau. Teen-agers ages 16 through 19 have about $130 a week to spend and, free from mortgages and tuition payments, that money can go to movies, clothes and fast food.

But capturing the attention of this sophisticated crowd is challenging.

"This is a very tricky group to get to," said Karl Weiss, president of Denver-based Market Perceptions. "You can't just slap the image of a skateboard on a product; they'll see through it."

"Kids are really cynical about marketing and being marketed to," said Cynthia Cohen, president of Menlo Park, Calif.-based Strategic Mindshare Associates.

A few years ago, malls went out of their way to make teen-agers feel unwelcome, hiring "mall cops" to shoo youngsters away. But as teen-agers' spending clout becomes more evident, malls are pulling out the stops to lure them back.

For example, the downtown Denver Pavilions partnered in July with the Aggressive Skaters Association to host a demonstration of in-line skating. The shopping center also hosted free rock concerts featuring local bands on Friday nights last summer.

Today's teen-agers have consumed more media from an early age than any other group, Cohen said. While they quickly can take in lots of information, tastes can change in a heartbeat.

Advertising, aimed at teens and featuring features models with shiny black hair and coffee-colored skin, reveals another trend that marketers best keep in mind: today's teen-agers are diverse ethnically and in many other ways.

Advertising tag-lines such as "Go Your Own Way" and "Show Your True Colors" encourage diversity among teen-age customers.

The optimistic attitude of many teen-agers also may prove a boon for retail marketers. According to market analysts at Teenage Research Unlimited, "Today's American teen-agers have grown up in a prosperous consumer environment ... most don't remember economic hard times. To this generation, inflation, recession and unemployment are foreign words. Teen-agers say things are going well for them and that they expect a future filled with achievement and realizing dreams."

Parents, who hand over half of the money teen-agers have to spend and have lived through recessions and tough economic times, might worry that teen-agers will ignore the value of saving and working hard. But nearly 60 percent of teen-agers polled by Merrill Lynch said they save half their money. Researcher Cohen thinks this generation understands the value of money.

Through games such as Pokemon trading cards, they've been educated in the value of currency from an early age, she said.

What's more, the image of the rebellious teen-ager who rejects his or her parents' values is a myth, experts say. Porter Novelli, a market research firm, reports that two-thirds of teen-agers not only accept but agree with their parents' values and ideals. The majority say they have helpful teachers and feel they are getting a solid education at school.

Teen-agers also feel good about themselves. Porter Novelli found that 91 percent of teen-agers see themselves as friendly, and 88 percent as caring.

Finally, retailers have capitalized on teen-agers' fascination and ease with technology, as well as their adeptness at multi-tasking _ talking on the phone, surfing the Internet, instant-messaging a buddy and listening to a CD, all at once.

Retailer HotTopic, for example, sells T-shirts designed with Japanese animation figures reminiscent of video game heroes. Buckle features a bright yellow winter jacket with pockets for a cell phone, portable CD player, sunglasses and pack of gum. The jacket also slips off and can be carried with straps like a back-pack, snowboarder-style.

Cohen predicts that next year, personal digital assistants priced less than $100 will become as ubiquitous as beepers, "because they offer instant messaging, allow kids to beep each other and will come out in neon colors," she said.


Rachel Brand, Scripps Howard News Service. October 11, 2000

Copyright © 2000 Scripps Howard News Service. All rights reserved.