Evolution of tweens' tastes keeps retailers on their toes

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Tween consumers are not just older children or preteens but a well-defined market segment with its own tastes and desires, according to a growing number of retailers.

Limited Too is one retailer that's tapping into the buying power of tweens. The chain has 407 stores across the U.S. aimed at tween girls, and plans to add another 50 to 55 this year. Limited Too expects to top $500 million in sales for its fiscal year ending this month. That would represent an increase of more than 10% from the previous year's $452 million in sales.

THINKING YOUNGER

Teen-age retailer Wet Seal also is thinking a little younger. The chain is using its recent acquisition of Zutopia's 19 stores for tween consumers as a strategic move to capture this segment. G&G Retail, parent company of the teen-targeted Rave and tween-positioned Rave Girl chains, plans to add another 50 Rave Girl stores in 2001.

One possible explanation for this trend toward attracting younger consumers is that retailing is flat in other age-group sales, says Candace Corlett, a principal at consultancy WSL Strategic Retail.

"If you've sold as much as you can to grown-ups and to Gen X, which the holiday season would suggest, then it's time to tap a new audience," she says.

Another reason is the sheer size of the current tween generation.

"Tweens are going to be the next major demographic generation," says Tim Coffey, CEO of Wonder-Group. Several executives from the consulting company recently wrote "The Great Tween Buying Machine: Marketing to Today's Tweens," due out this spring.

Tweens, numbering 19.5 million in 2000, spend $14 billion a year, according to WonderGroup estimates. But even with all this buying power, retailing directly to tweens is still in its infancy, possibly because of a reluctance to target such a young audience.

"We have a cosmetic client that is very skittish about going too far into makeup for tweens," Ms. Corlett says. "Body glitter and decals are fine, but it is very reluctant to do a full-blown line with liner, eye shadow and rouge."

Mr. Coffey argues the segment should only get more powerful in the future "as marketers wake up to the fact this is a huge market. If you take the time to satisfy its needs, you will achieve success."

ABERCROMBIE MOVE

Even Abercrombie & Fitch, known for targeting teens and young adults, is stepping up its efforts with tweens. The chain opened its first abercrombie store for 7-to-16-year-olds in 1998, and today there are 84 outlets across the country. In 2001, the chain expects to add about 60 more stores.

At Limited Too, Robert Atkin-son, director of investor relations, says the retailer used to be a section inside The Limited stores and didn't really take off until after it was spun off from The Limited and in 1997 began opening standalone store aimed at 7-to-14-year-old girls.

The chain's success, Mr. Atkinson says, is due to the stores' appeal directly to girls through fashionable clothing, music and decor. Store staffers are trained to talk to the shoppers, not their mothers. "If we can't make a friend with the girl first, we're probably not going to get very far," he says.

Until now, the chain hasn't done any advertising but that's set to change with the introduction of a national campaign this fall, Mr. Atkinson says. The retailer is looking for an agency.

NAME AND A CATALOG

One important tool for retailers in the tween market is the catalog, Ms. Corlett says. "This age group doesn't get any mail, and they really like getting a catalog that is addressed to them," she explains, pointing to Delia's as a retailer that has found success with this strategy.

Tweens also are very Internet savvy, making e-commerce sites another strong conduit for reaching them. Limited Too has a site (limitedtoo.com), as do Rave Girl (goravegirl.com) and Abercrombie & Fitch (abercrombiekids.com). Other tween sites such as alloy.com, bolt.com and mxgonline. com combine fashion content with e-commerce. In fact, there are a staggering number of tween-positioned e-commerce sites considering that a consumer has to be 18 or older to place a mail order.

Beauty and lifestyle products for tweens are growing. For example, CVS Corp.'s new Grrl Lab is a store-within-a-store concept in 1,200 drugstores that carries beauty products, jewelry and stationery items for tween and teen-age customers.

WAL-MART NOTICES

Budget-conscious tweens are also interested in fashion trends, according to a spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores, which launched a line of fashionable clothing for 6-to-14-year-old girls under the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen license in January. The exclusive Wal-Mart brand is currently in all of the chain's 2,600 U.S. stores and "initial sales have been better than expected," the spokesman says. As a result, orders for the summer and back-to-school collections have already been increased.

Fashion advertisers are starting to notice the tween market, says Jeff Dunetz, publisher of Nickelodeon magazine. Mr. Dunetz says his publication's fashion ad dollars have tripled in the last year thanks to the growing presence of advertisers such as Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and Steve Madden.

Other categories are likely to follow. "Practically every consumer goods category has an opportunity in the tween market," Ms. Corlett says, "but it's a matter of understanding the boundaries and the expenses."

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