- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

High school senior Corinne Fitzgerald of Pasadena is on the lookout for bargains.

The fashion-conscious teen shops at favorites such as American Eagle Outfitters, Old Navy and Pacific Sunwear, while keeping a close eye on the price tags and an even sharper eye on quality.

“I always am looking for the deals,” said Miss Fitzgerald, 18, while shopping at Arundel Mills last week. “I try to stretch my money as far as I can. But I’m not going to buy something that rips the next day.”

That balance between quality merchandise and the right price is the magic formula retailers are searching for to get teens in their stores and opening their wallets.

“Teenagers are becoming one of the most powerful markets,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with the NPD Group, a marketing-information company in Port Washington, N.Y. “Teenagers have become an intricate part of consumer spending.”

Teenagers spent $175 billion in the United States last year — that’s 14 percent more than they were spending five years ago and 43 percent more than in 1997, according to Teenage Research Unlimited, a teen-market research firm in Northbrook, Ill.

Teenagers are asking “who can give the look I want for the least amount of money?” said Tina Wells, managing partner of Blue Fusion and chief executive of Buzz Marketing Group, both of which deal with the teen market. “They are value-conscious shoppers, but at the same time they are spending a lot of money.”

And times have changed.

Five years ago, teens were focused on brand-name labels that would “place them in a certain image category,” said Rob Callender, senior trends manager at Teenage Research. “Now they may not be spending less on clothing, but they are getting more for their money.”

In addition, their purchases are revolving more around technology than ever before.

“Teens today are still concerned with image, but the vehicle to convey that image is no longer the same,” Mr. Cohen said. “Teenagers are more concerned about having the right cell phone than the right jeans.”

The average teen spends $103 a week, according to Teenage Research.

Samantha Drenner, 16, and Ciara Bartlett, 15, both of Glen Burnie, Md., say they love to shop for clothes, shoes, purses and accessories. Retailers such as American Eagle, Forever 21 and Abercrombie & Fitch top their list of hot stores. They also will shop at discounters such as Target because they can find similar items at cheaper prices.

“We shop for bargains because our money is limited,” Samantha said.

A handful of retailers are focusing their efforts on the teen market. Teen-savvy stores such as Hot Topic, Wet Seal, Gadzooks and Claire’s have mastered the formula, some retail officials said.

Claire’s, an accessory store, has made its mark targeting 7- to 17-year-old girls with the hottest fashions, from funky body jewelry and hair pins to Snapple lip gloss.

“We’re constantly watching the trends,” spokeswoman Marisa Jacobs said. “We learn what works and what doesn’t work.”

The worldwide chain reported sales of $1.13 billion for fiscal 2004 — a 13 percent increase from the previous year. Sales at stores open at least a year rose 7 percent.

The founders of Five Below, where everything sells for $5 or less, are focusing their efforts on teen shoppers.

“We’re not necessarily the hottest trend retailer,” said David Schlessinger, co-founder and chief executive. “But we offer cool, trendy stuff at great prices and empower teens to afford anything in the store.”

The store is filled with trendy merchandise running the gamut, from nostalgic lava lamps and Hello Kitty lunch boxes to funky doorbells for bedrooms, CD-Roms and nail tattoos.

“To succeed, you have to be dead on with fads and trends, and value is just a bonus,” said Tom Vellios, co-founder and director. “It’s got to be hip, groovy and trendy.”

Five Below opened its first local stores in April in the Arundel Mills mall and in Baltimore. The Philadelphia company plans to open two more in Manassas, Va., and Chantilly next month.

Valerie Foster of Severn, Md., stood in a nearly 10-person-deep line at Five Below to buy items such as a boogie board and trading cards for her children, who are 9 and 7 years old.

While they are too young to go on weekly shopping sprees, they do have money burning a hole in their pockets.

“They really like to spend it,” Ms. Foster said. “This is a great place for them to bring their money and get more bang for their buck.”

While the teen-targeted shops are raking in the sales, other retailers are struggling to catch up.

Mr. Cohen says many department stores, for example, have tried to re-evaluate the teen market. They have added video monitors and play loud music to make the store more hip, but that doesn’t fool teens.

“This is still their mother’s store,” Mr. Cohen said. “They went one step but not the full step. They haven’t figured out the formula.”

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