More teens hitting the mall on a tight budget

December 21, 2003|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

Teen-agers have about $95 billion in spending money, according to the experts, and I feel like I have handed over more than my share.

These kids get money as gifts. They hold some kind of a job, even if it is only babysitting, and they still draw an allowance.

In addition, they go back and forth between addled parents asking for handouts. Or they ask for a few bucks so they don't have to break that phantom $20 bill.

Add it all up, and you have a lot of very disposable income. Mad money. Money that doesn't have to be used for utilities or mortgage payments. Money that often doesn't even go for gasoline or their share of the cell-phone bill.

How teen-agers decide to spend that money can close a movie, sink a retail chain, bury a product, consign a rock star to oblivion or alter the eating choices of a nation.

There are 32 million teen-agers in this country, but they appear to shop in unison. They flow from Old Navy to Abercrombie & Fitch to PacSun like a startled flock of starlings. Knowing where they will land next requires something like divination.

Even so, teens do not drive the retail clothing chains the way they did even last year. They are saving their money for big-ticket electronic items, such as cell phones, video games and digital cameras.

In the meantime, they are shopping for clothing bargains at Wal-Mart and Target.

"Clothing always tops their list," said Cynthia Engelke, manager of research and trends for Youth Intelligence, a market research firm. "But technology items are giving clothes a run for their money."

Though both teen guys and teen girls report that they plan to spend more money this year than last, there are signs that they are becoming savvy and cautious consumers.

"Teens are very aware," said Engelke. "The economy has hit their parents hard and, after years of being overprotected and indulged, they are realizing that money doesn't grow on trees. They might have to work for it.

"The result is that they are very cost-conscious. Combine that with the fact that they know that in three to six months, there will be a totally different look."

Though teens are as likely to buy for themselves during the holiday season as for anybody on their list, it is unfair and inaccurate to think of them as spoiled and self-absorbed, says Byron Freney, one of the principals in Radar Communications, which does strategic research.

"There is a lot of return on investment in terms of buying things for their friends," he said.

"Little gifts are important. They are a way of expressing friendship and there is nothing that they value more than their friendships.

"They take the same kind of care choosing a gift as you or I might with our child," said Freney, though he was willing to admit that this poignant gift giving is more popular among girls than boys.

It is difficult to even speak of "teen-agers" as a shopping group because 13- and 14-year-olds are so different from 18- and 19-year-olds.

One group is still into apparel while the other might be thinking about furnishing an apartment or a college room or buying a car.

"The younger teens are busy trying to fit in and they are driven by trends and what is popular with others," said Freney.

"When they get older, they shed that image and they are busy trying to stand out.

"But they are both doing the same thing, trying to find their place and communicate who they are and that can come from the purchases they make."

Seems to me, you could be hugely self-aware for $95 billion.

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