- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

It is 7 p.m. on a Friday. April Kitcho-Lucero, Leah White and Sonyi Mays all eighth-graders at Fairfax County's Rachel Carson Middle School have an evening of possibilities in front of them.

The girls are at Sterling, Va.'s, Dulles Town Center, one of the Washington area's many shopping malls. They might eat, or not. They might buy something or just window-shop. They might check out what teens from other schools are wearing. They giddily plan out an itinerary that includes the food court, Candy World and the Halloween costume store.

"Your hair rocks" Leah shouts to a platinum blond teenage boy riding the escalator. Leah, clad all in black even her lipstick is a fan of the goth look.

"The best store here is Hot Topic," she says. "It's where you get the punk stuff for the raver-club look."

Her friends agree and name their other reasons for spending time here.

"It's fun to come to the mall because all of the stores are in one place," Sonyi says. "And we can get smoothies. Sometimes we are just window-shopping."

Adds Leah: "The mall is great when you don't have anywhere else to go."

The girls are the latest generation of American teens to use a shopping mall as much more than a place to buy shoes. The mall is a place to be part of a crowd of other teens. It is a place to check out what is trendy. Most important, it is a place they can go without their parents, says Michael Riera, a San Francisco psychologist and co-author of the book "Field Guide to the American Teenager."

"The mall is the mythical street corner," Mr. Riera says. "Teens can be out of the view of their parents. They can be invisible, or be someone else. They can try on different attitudes and know that if they try something foolish, it will have minimal impact on their daily lives. It is a sense of liberty, too, to get away from your parents and, if you've got some money, to spend it on things they wouldn't necessarily let you buy."

Robbie Blinkoff, a Baltimore cultural anthropologist who studies consumer behavior, says teens want to be where something is happening. Shopping malls have the possibility of something happening, he says, simply because there are large groups of people there.

"Teens want to be around other teens," he says. "They want to hang out. Malls are a place where teens can be until the next best thing happens. Young people tend to measure the success by who was there and whether you were there when something happened. Malls have a lot of possibilities for that."

Spending money

"We don't always have money to spend," says Chelsea Gibson, a ninth-grader at Potomac Falls High School in Sterling. Chelsea is in the food court of Dulles Town Center on a recent Friday night with friends Chris Brent, 13, and Melanie Fleming, 13.

"Half the time we don't buy anything except Chinese food, pretzels or ice cream," Chelsea says.

It's that other half of the time when teens are spending cash that is encouraging to merchants. American teens spent $172 billion in 2001, according to Teen Research Unlimited, an Illinois market-research firm.

The average teen consumer spends $104 per week. That money is a combination of the teen's own discretionary spending and parents' contributions for necessary items.

Leah White says she gets $150 monthly to spend on clothes. She might make a few trips to the mall to investigate what she wants to buy before she actually buys it. On a recent Friday night, buoyed by $25 she received as a birthday gift from her grandmother, Leah is eyeing a stretchy black shirt that cost $42 at Hot Topic.

"She has to learn how to make the money last," says Leah's mother, Robyn White. "That money also goes for coats and shoes and things, too."

There are 31 million teens in the 12-to-19 age bracket, and that number is expected to swell to 35 million by 2010, according to Teen Research Unlimited. That is a lot of consumers to be courted.

The wooing of the teen consumer is evident all around. Dulles Town Center sports Abercrombie and Fitch, Limited Too, Rave, Pacific Sunwear, Gadzooks, Claire's and Hot Topic among its teen-oriented stores. Potomac Mills mall in Prince William County has a skateboard park on the premises. Minnesota's Mall of America, the largest mall in country, has 100 stores including two Abercrombie and Fitch shops that are targeted to teens, says mall spokeswoman Monica Davis.

William Severini Kowinski, author of the book "The Malling of America," says there has been a recent acceleration in marketing to teens.

"Teens have a lot of money to spend," Mr. Kowinski says, "and not much more, such as bills, to spend it on."

That seems to be why mall management lets teens just "hang around." The teen buying a pretzel today might be buying $100 worth of CDs tomorrow and outfitting a house and family a decade from now.

"We are certainly getting customers for life," says Ted Priest, general manager of Westfield's Shoppingtown Montgomery, more commonly known as Montgomery Mall. "Teens come here because we have stores that cater to them, such as Forever 21 and Level 10. We love to have them here."

Jackie Young, marketing director for Potomac Mills, agrees that teen customers should be treated like any other customers. "We embrace teens at the mall, as long as they adhere to the rules," Ms. Young says.

But is it safe?

When April, Sonyi and Leah arrive at the mall one recent Friday, they are dropped off by Sonyi's dad, Gaylord Mays.

"See you at eight," Mr. Mays, a Marine gunnery sergeant, tells his daughter. Going to the mall with friends and no adult supervision is a relatively new thing for Sonyi, he says.

"She wasn't allowed to go with friends until this year," Mr. Mays says. "My one rule is I have to know who you are with. I feel it is pretty safe."

Mrs. White has similar rules for Leah. She has to stay with her friends, stay in the mall and meet at a specific place and time to get picked up, Mrs. White says.

Mr. Riera says malls generally are safe places if teens follow the rules of the mall and the guidelines set by their parents.

"For a teen, a mall can be a big party to which you don't have to be invited," he says. "There is probably not going to be alcohol and drugs, so I don't think spending time at the mall is such a terrible thing."

Mr. Riera says it is a good idea to drop by the mall once in a while to see what your teenagers are doing. He also says that when a teen asks to get dropped off at the mall, it is a good teachable moment for personal safety.

"Say to them, 'I am concerned about your safety,'" Mr. Riera says. "Ask your child to make a list of things they can do if they get into trouble at the mall. They have to take the idea of safety, such as knowing where a security guard is. Find out what kind of crimes have happened at your local mall."

Malls are not immune to street crime. Shoplifting, purse snatching and auto theft happen to varying degrees, just as they do in any other public setting. Also, with large groups of teens, fighting is always a possibility. In August, a 17-year-old from Baltimore was stabbed and killed outside Towson Town Center after an argument with another teen.

"Safety really depends on location," Mr. Blinkoff says. "Even if there is a 1 percent chance of something happening, that is enough for some parents to not allow their child to go to the mall."

Some malls around the country have instituted weekend teen curfews, but no local malls have them. Curfews generally are not for the safety of teens, but for the sanity of adults, says Ms. Davis of the Mall of America. The 520-store Mall of America has had a curfew for teens since 1996.

"We would have literally between 5,000 and 10,000 teenagers at the mall on a Friday or Saturday night," she says. "The teens would be unsupervised, and mall personnel would end up as baby sitters. There would be yelling, swearing and running around in large groups. It was creating an intimidating environment.

"Ninety-eight percent of kids here are well-behaved," she says. "But there is that 2 percent who would be getting into scuffles and calling across to one another. Because everything is on such a large scale here, we had to do something."

The Mall of America's parental escort policy requires that children younger than 16 be accompanied by a parent or guardian after 6 p.m. on weekends. Security guards are posted at all 23 entrances to check IDs.

"The parental escort policy has proven very beneficial," Ms. Davis says. "The families have returned at night, and tenants' sales increased."

The Mall of America also has a force of Mighty Moms and Dedicated Dads. These are adults from the community paid by the mall to act as liaisons between teens and security officers, Ms. Davis says.

"Oftentimes when a teen is approached by a security officer, there is an instant confrontation," she says. "Having a mom there is an instant calming effect."

Ms. Davis says parents need to keep in mind their own child's sensibility when determining whether he or she is mature enough to shop alone.

"Shopping malls are no different from any other attraction," she says. "Parents need to be mindful of that and to not expect their children to be supervised, even with security guards. We really feel that 16 and above is the right age to be able to supervise themselves and know the difference between right and wrong."

Alas, by 16, the love affair with the mall usually has passed.

"Hanging out at the mall is usually a phase for the eighth- to tenth-grader," Mr. Riera says. "By 11th or 12th grade, they can work, drive, date, and that usually replaces what they were getting at the mall."

Kerri Tyler, a high school junior from Sterling, agrees. Kerri, 17, is at Dulles Town Center five times a week working at Just Desserts bakery in the food court. Between customers, she is completing homework.

"I never like to hang out here," Kerri says. "That's for teeny-boppers."

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