- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2008

As the economy goes, so go jeans with bling, faux-fur trimmed vests, little pink skirts and Jonas Brothers backpacks. Apparently, even fashion-conscious tweens are looking for value when it comes to headbands covered with little hearts.

That’s why Limited Too is no more. Long live Justice for Girls. This may not be big news to you, but if you are say, 8 years old, it’s huge. Not as huge as a Hannah Montana show, but still news.

Tween Brands, the parent company of Limited Too and Justice, announced last week that all 560 Limited Too stores will change to the newer and more budget-conscious Justice brand this fall. Tween brands chairman and CEO Mike Rayden says he thinks there has been a change in the economy that is not going to turn in a season.

Or with the rollout of new shirts with sequined peace signs.

“The fact is, it is not just that the economy is difficult,” Mr. Rayden says. “If we thought the economy was cyclical, we wouldn’t have made the change. We believe we are seeing a change in consumer habits.”

Teens and tweens spent nearly $30 billion on clothes in the first half of 2008, according to data from the NPD Group, a market research firm. That number is not much of an increase from recent stats, however, and intense competition from discounters such as Target and Wal-Mart and higher-end stores such as Abercrombie has made it a tough fight for retail dollars.

An NPD back-to-school survey said that 34 percent of consumers stated they would not change their purchase behavior; down from April when 42 percent said they would do nothing different.

“The eight-point drop represents billions of dollars in sales that are not being injected into the normal shopping sectors for consumers,” says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD.

Another shift: where consumers tell NPD they plan to shop. In July, 41 percent of consumers said economic conditions would not affect where they shop. In April, that number was 44 percent.

“This would suggest that we are starting to see signs that consumers are store shifting,” Mr. Cohen says. “It represents a huge opportunity for many retailers.”

Justice stores, mainly located in strip malls rather than enclosed malls, began three years ago as a store that offered merchandise similar to Limited Too, but with more basics and prices that were typically 20 percent to 25 percent lower. Parents liked not only the prices, but also the styles. “More basic” often meant less Hollywood starlet and more appropriate for a third-grader: skirts just a little longer; tank tops straps a little wider.

“As a mom, I have to pick and choose,” says Kathleen Nealon of Ashburn, who recently was shopping at the Tyson’s Corner Limited Too with her 10-year-old daughter, Shannon. “What is appropriate for a 10-year-old is maybe not what’s appropriate for a 14-year-old.”

For shoppers like Shannon, both stores are one-stop shopping. The fifth-grader had a stack of T-shirts to try on, as well as a Jonas Brothers CD, as part of her back-to-school outing.

“They have a lot of cool clothes and all the Webkinz,” says Shannon, referring to the line of computer-interactive stuffed animals.

Mrs. Nealon says she will shop at Justice. She has shopped there before, and appreciates the lower prices.

“Justice is a little less expensive,” she says. “We end up walking out of there with a little more.”

That is what Mr. Rayden is hoping. Limited Too profits have been waning the last year, while Justice showed double-digit increases - and that was before this summer’s hit of $4-a-gallon gas prices, Mr. Rayden says.

“Expensive doesn’t seem to be as relevant in this environment,” he says. “The values of price and convenience are not going to change.”

So no matter how many Webkinz girls want on their bookshelves or how many glittery lip glosses they want to put in a pink plaid purse, money - and a ride to the mall - is still the bottom line.

“Our customers don’t drive, either,” says Mr. Rayden. “Parents are still making the decisions. They are being pulled by the girls, but they are still making the decisions. If it makes kids happy, they want to do it if they can afford it.”

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