Md. girl, 9, is advising Sears on what's cool

Shopper: Trailed by her mom, four PR specialists and two buyers, Morgan Dolly goes on a multi- million-dollar buying spree in New York for a company known more for tires than pre-teen fashions.

January 02, 2000|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- The 9-year-old in gray bell-bottoms and platform shoes darted through apparel showrooms in skyscrapers along Broadway, not in the least intimidated by all the grown-ups in suits watching her every move.

Sales managers and heads of clothing manufacturers carefully laid out shirts, skirts and pants they hope to sell retailers now -- for next spring.

They paid close attention to the reaction of the youngster from Cumberland.

Morgan Dolly nodded her approval at some outfits, mixed and matched others and pulled away the not-so-hip, jumping to reach racks higher than her 56 inches. She told it like she saw it.

And her audience -- executives and buyers from one of the biggest retailers in the nation, Sears, Roebuck and Co. -- hung on every word.

In trying to win the hearts of cash-rich children, Sears had decided to start with just one, a fourth-grader representative of her sophisticated, brand-conscious generation.

Sears found Morgan, a consummate shopper, not at the mall but on the Internet, by sponsoring a fashion contest for children. The grand prize, beside $1,000 and a weekend in New York, was spending a day in the fashion district as a Sears buyer choosing girls' apparel for spring 2000.

"I'm sure in her peer group, she's a fashion leader," said Greg Sandfort, Sears vice president and general merchandise manager of children's apparel, furniture and toys, before the mid-December trip. "Anything she chooses, we're going to buy."

If basing such decisions on the whims of a 9-year-old seems questionable, consider this: Last year children ages 4 to 12 spent $27 billion of their own money, with "tweens," aged 8 to 12 spending about 70 percent of that, said James McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A&M University.

Even if they're not directly buying, they're increasingly influencing their parents' spending of about $200 billion last year, McNeal said. Today's children also have more of an equal relationship with parents, especially with single parents, and thus more say. Spending and influence have grown at a rate of 15 percent a year since 1987.

"Parents have the money, both are working 70 percent of the time, and they have less time to spend with kids, so they soothe their kids with money," McNeal said. "Parents say, `I know you won't have it better, but I want you to have it as good as other kids.' One way to solve the problem is giving kids money.

"The dollars [kids] have now is what marketers are taking notice of," he said. "Kids are finally being realized as a future market for all goods and services. If they're nurtured now, they can grow into a viable market."

But children in that age group are more likely to ask their parents to take them to Old Navy or even Target, for that matter, than Sears, which they may instead link with refrigerators or tires.

Specialty stores have done a better job than department stores in understanding young shoppers, say experts, who point to the phenomenal success of Old Navy and others such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Delia's and American Eagle Outfitters.

"Those are the hot places, and department stores who are brand-oriented are selling less apparel," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz and Associates, a national retail consulting firm in New York. "The hottest thing going on is Gen X and Gen Y. That's the group spending the money like mad."

Successful retailers not only recognize that but can turn on a dime to react to new trends, experts say. That has been tough for department stores because they have to appeal to a broad base of shoppers.

"Some chains have cultures that make them fast-moving," Davidowitz said. "They execute and make changes instantly. There is much less bureaucracy and they move faster. That's very important. Others are bureaucratic and lumber along. J. C. Penney and Sears have typically been slow to react."

But department stores, worried about losing customers and trying to get their share, are not sitting idly by. Sears, for one, says it has made changes over the past year in assortment.

"We're becoming much more trend-right, more focused on what these kids are into" as part of a strategy of becoming more relevant to young families' lives, said Sandfort, the Sears vice president.

Making the right decisions on assortment can be one of the toughest parts of the job, said Mike Dagne, divisional merchandise manager for girls at Sears.

"If you make a mistake now, it doesn't show up for four or five months," he said. "We try to keep as much of an open mind and stay as flexible as we can."

That's crucial because tastes change, not only year to year but quarter to quarter, said Sandfort.

Taking risks can either pay big dividends or prove deadly, as more than a few retailers have learned.

One of the most high profile of those was a Maryland retail institution, Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc.

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