Teen taste for styles and stores flips fast

January 10, 1999|By Susan Reimer

IF THE CURRENT CROP of teen girls marry the way they shop, they are going to make Elizabeth Taylor look like the town's old maid. I have watched with head-snapping amazement as my 12-year-old daughter and her posse of mall dolls shift their devotion from store to store as if they were on 30-minute spending sprees.

Talk about your brand loyalty. Not.

These girls cruise the mall in hyperdrive, setting trends as they go and leaving a wake of red ink behind them. Each will spend more than $800 a year on clothes, according to national surveys by Leo J. Shapiro and Associates, and that gives them the Midas touch.

But it is impossible to track their taste, because they can't say why they like what they like; and it doesn't matter anyway, because they will like something else in six weeks.

"You can be assured of one thing -- fickleness is here to stay," says Kurt Barnard, a retail consultant and president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report in Upper Montclair, N.J. "They jilted Limited Too and other stores like it. And they will jilt Old Navy and Abercrombie & Fitch someday. There is no defense against them, and you never know what is going to be their next stop."

A girl gives a store window about three seconds to catch her attention, retail experts say, and she is simultaneously chatting like mad with her friends.

"She is not a customer with patience," says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting firm. "And she can't say what she wants except that she wants a store that is focused on her. That's why she hates department stores.

"And once you lose your touch, you are 'boring' and 'yuck,' and you can't get it back. This is not a rational process."

I don't think I washed the bell-bottom jeans once before Jessie moved on to button-fly, boot-cut jeans. And "stone-washed" and "sand-blasted" have given way to "rinsed." Can you imagine trying to make a living selling to this group?

The Limited, among the first to lay a trap for young teens with its Limited Too, lost its hold on this group when it went with '70s retro stuff. Saw-reeeee. The girls had already moved on to the earth tones and outdoor look of American Eagle Outfitters or the great prices at Old Navy.

Look out, Old Navy. Girls love a bargain, but Abercrombie & Fitch has high-decibel rock music that drives grown-ups out of the store and sexy, oversized posters of the college kids young teens aspire to be. Young girls are already hanging out there, and A&F was on everybody's Christmas list. As soon as they get enough money for its pricey, thrift-shop look, they will be shopping there.

And in the ultimate expression of "voting with their feet," teen girls are abandoning athletic-shoe stores because they want to be seen in Doc Martens and Steve Maddens.

Here's what you have to do when a 12-year-old girl has declared your store to be yuck, boring: The Limited bought Abercrombie & Fitch, which used to be a stuffy English clothier, and retooled it by stealing the look of the Calvin Klein fragrance ads.

Now A&F is suing American Eagle for stealing its color combinations and its marketing scheme.

Meanwhile, A&F is trying to recapture the 10- to 14-year-old set that Limited Too lost by testing a new store, Abercrombie. And the Gap is insulated from obsolescence by owning Old Navy and Banana Republic.

When I told Jessie about this retail "chain," she asked if Claire's boutique had them in silver.

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