Tuning Into Teens

As every retailer knows (or should know), teens are a moving target. I was reminded of just how fast their tastes can change when I attended a combination birthday/going-away-to-college party for my friend’s 17-year-old daughter. Becky and her friends are middle-class suburban fashionistas. They spend almost all of their disposable income on clothing. In fact, shopping at the local mall is their No. 1 activity. About the only thing that comes close is a trip to nearby Manhattan where they—what else?—shop.

Watching Becky open her presents was a study in enlightenment. Her friends had all chipped in to buy her an outfit from Free People, and it was clearly the most popular gift of the day. Close runners-up: a dress from H&M, gift cards for Blue Mercury, iTunes, Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle. Noticeably missing from the party were such former teen faves as Juicy Couture and Coach. What happened?

“Juicy stores are full of younger kids and moms who want to look young,” Becky’s friend April told me. “Free People is a lot cooler.”

What about Coach? It was only a few months ago that these very same girls couldn’t get enough of the brand, including the real thing and knockoffs.

“I don’t know,” Becky said. “It’s just not hot anymore. At least not with us.”

To my mind, that phrase, “just not hot anymore,” is a telling one. It gets to the heart of the challenge that confronts all retailers that target teens. It’s a market in which there is only one certainty: What’s hot today is unlikely to be hot (or as hot) next month.

So what’s a retailer to do? Staying ahead of the curve—as opposed to focusing on what’s hot now—is critical. The good news is that you don’t need to invest in focus groups. Simple observations can help keep merchants in tune with teens. Here are some recommendations (courtesy of The Nielsen Co.) on where to start:

Track gift-card usage to see what kinds of gift cards teens give and receive and what they buy;

Visit popular teen Web sites such as MySpace.com and check out who advertises on the same. Also take note of the graphics and color usage on these sites;

Watch videos on YouTube;

Check out iTunes and the top podcasts; and

Become familiar with their language and don’t use outdated terminology.

The bottom line in appealing to teens is really the same as it is with any consumer group: understand your audience.

Getting back to Becky’s party, the apparently no-longer hot status of Juicy Couture and Coach wasn’t the only insight I gleaned that day. Here are a few others:

Tween customers are the kiss of death for a hot teen specialty brand. No teenage girl wants to shop at the same store as her younger sister. Abercrombie understood this early on and headed off the problem by opening a kids store;

H&M is gaining traction fast in the suburbs;

Abercrombie’s store experience remains crucial to its long-lasting appeal. “I like that the music is so loud it almost hurts your ears,” one gal said. “And the people that work there are hot,” added another; and

Becky and her friends understand that not every pair of jeans should cost upward of $100. But while they like J.C. Penney and Target, Wal-Mart is completely off their radar.

Finally, I learned that there is one brand that never goes out of style with teens: the one issued by the U.S. Treasury. I gave Becky cash. She told me afterward that it was one of her favorite gifts.

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