As kids get savvy, marketers move down the age scale


By Jayne O'Donnell, USA TODAY

April 11, 2007

Jill Brown almost cried the day her 9-year-old daughter sold several American Girl dolls at a yard sale so she could buy a Juicy Couture sweat suit.
It was a painful reminder that the emotional and psychological distance between childhood and the teen years is far shorter than ever.

"It was such an indication of her moving to a different place," says Brown, a marketing consultant in Northbrook, Ill. "It was also a little bit of an indication that she was starting to solve things for herself."

Chalk it up to "age compression," which many marketers call "kids getting older younger" or KGOY. Retail consultant Ken Nisch says it shouldn't be a surprise or an outrage that kids are tired of toys and kid clothes by 8, considering that they are exposed to outside influences so much earlier. They are in preschool at 3 and on computers at 6.

That's why marketers now target 9-year-olds with apparel and accessories once considered only for teens, says Nisch, chairman of the retail consulting and design firm JGA.

Generation Y, those between about 8 and 26, are considered the most important generation for retailers and marketers because of their spending power and the influence they have over what their parents buy. But just as the 8- to 12-year-old "tweens" are pitched with a dizzying array of music, movie and cellphone choices, the nearly 10 million tween girls also are getting more attention from fashion, skin care and makeup businesses. Last year, NPD Group says 7- to 14-year-old girls spent $11.5 billion on apparel, up from $10.5 billion in 2004.

With their keen but shifting senses of style, tween girls present some of the biggest rewards and challenges for retailers and brands. What's called for: a delicate marketing dance that tunes in tween girls without turning off their parents, who control both the purse strings and the car. Retailers to tween girls also must stay in close touch with the fashion pulse, because being "out" is even more painful for girls who haven't hit the teen years, say retailers and their consultants. They'll drop a brand faster than you can say Hannah Montana if the clothes become anything close to dorky.

When you're a tween retailer, you're "even more subject to peer pressure, to being in or out" than those dealing strictly with teenagers, says Nisch.

Some other tween girl traits:

•They're driven by imitation. Tweens want to look like each other but be able to call looks their own, says retail consultant Laura Evans, whose clients include Reebok and Express. Retailers that offer a lot of similar apparel — layers of shirts in a variety of colors — tend to be the most popular. Hilary Bell, executive vice president for strategy for Bonne Bell, says almost every young girl is introduced to the youth-oriented cosmetic brand through her mother, aunt or older sister, "But each generation, she feels like she discovered it herself." Tween Brands, which owns the Limited Too and Justice chains, finds its customer "doesn't want to set the trend on the playground," says spokesman Robert Atkinson. In some respects, this makes the tween retailer's job easier. It can follow popular trends from the teen market.

•They want more of everything. Whether it's lip balm or blue jeans, "More is more," says Nita Rollins, who heads marketing intelligence at the digital marketing agency Resource Interactive. "Nothing succeeds like excess." Tweens aren't aware of "social codes of restraint," says Rollins, so they see no reason why they don't need 10 American Girl dolls or several pairs of jeans or sneakers. The average number of Lip Smacker-brand lip balm and glosses owned by Bonne Bell customers is 10, but, Bell notes, "The girls who have 100 make up for the ones who don't have 10."

Therein also lies the success of the low-priced accessories store chains Claire's and Icing. Young people even have a new website,, on which to chronicle and quantify their possessions, and millions already have.

•They are environmentally aware. Tweens start to "feel the pain of everybody. They want to know if animals were hurt in making this," says Nisch, whose clients have included H&M and Disney. They might even become vegetarians or vegans. Rollins agrees: "They have social consciousness at a very young age. They have great lives, and so they want to give back."

Bonne Bell doesn't test on animals, and Hilary Bell says the company often gets e-mails from girls thanking it. The company also uses recycled paper, cardboard and plastics in packaging where possible. The girls, for the most part, "have a caring, sharing and compassionate attitude. The Earth, plants and animals are their friends," Bell says.

•They like attention, sort of. "Our customer aspires to be like an older girl, so if she's 10 she wants to dress like a 12-year-old, and a 12-year-old wants to dress like a 14-year-old," says Atkinson. But she's also "more self-conscious" and not usually trying to attract boys, he says. She mostly just wants to appear "more affiliated with her friends."

Looking for attention

Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow says "sexy is the ubiquitous look for the entire generation, but for tweens and teens, it's not so much sexual as attention-getting." The attention more adventurous tweens get when they wear "sexy" stuff makes them feel powerful. "They just don't compute sexy the way adults do. It's a dress-up game," says Yarrow, a marketing professor at Golden Gate University.

A tween starts to feel more comfortable with fashions when she sees them on her older sister or the babysitter, says Atkinson. Tween Brands' challenge, he says, is to "tastefully interpret them for the younger customer. She's just literally developing into a young woman. She doesn't even want to wear spaghetti straps." The girl "has to want an item because she thinks it's the coolest thing in fashion, but if we don't pass muster with Mom, that transaction is not going to be completed."

Moms, in fact, are a big influence on tween fashions, experts say. Many tweens may get some fashion cues from celebrities, but they still look first to their moms. "They still want Mom to give them the OK," Atkinson says.

What else would explain all the tweens and teens with quilted and printed cloth backpacks and purses from Vera Bradley, asks Rollins. "You can't say it's because the paisleys are particularly beautiful. It's the exposure to all the brands the parents covet."

While teens have dozens of retailers catering to them and many within each subset, from preppy to Goth to skateboard style, tween girls shop in a much more narrow range. Outside of department and mass-merchandise stores, their specialty store choices are largely limited to, well, Limited Too, Justice and Abercrombie Kids.

Despite the challenges, most brands want to hook kids as early as possible, which explains kid and tween lines from the likes of Lucky Brand Jeans, J. Crew and Juicy Couture. Bell calls her brand's lip balms "a rite of entry into makeup." Tweens are the brand's core customer, but they've developed products that appeal to kids starting at age 4 and then adapt them to teens and beyond.

Lucky simply offers its adult jeans and vintage-inspired clothes in smaller sizes, choosing not to treat kids or tweens like "little dolls," says Liz Munoz, senior vice president of merchandising and design

"Our brand is about staying young at heart and having fun and being somewhat carefree from the burdens of fashion and trends," says Munoz. "I don't necessarily want my kids to look older. I just want them to wear high-quality, beautiful things."

'Fashion battle' with a 9-year-old

If only it were so simple, says Angelina Spencer of Naples, Fla., who has an 11-year-old daughter. Spencer says she and Ryan had their first "fashion battle" when Ryan was 9.

"I refused to buy her tight, midriff exposing T-shirts that Britney Spears had made so popular, (and) my resourceful daughter resorted to knotting her T-shirts in the back to give her the look she desired," says Spencer. Spencer started a dialogue with Ryan about the appropriate fit for her clothes and what she was trying to accomplish with revealing fashion.

She says it was both eye-opening and life changing. Ryan started sketching fashions, and her mother bought her a sewing machine. Ryan's favorite stores still include Abercrombie Kids, American Eagle and Hollister, but she and her mother have reached a middle ground on what's appropriate, even if it can be challenging to find clothes that satisfy both of them.

"My views of fashion have definitely changed. I used to think that the less clothes, the better," Ryan says. "I currently don't have my stomach showing anywhere but the beach."

Angelina Spencer wishes retailers let kids have more of a role in personalizing and designing their clothes. Polo Ralph Lauren has tapped into this desire, says Evans, who leads the retail team at Resource Interactive. It offers tweens and teens the chance to monogram and handpick the color combination for the logo and garment.

It's "all about carving out their own individuality" but within a very limited range, Atkinson says of tweens.

Lindsey Brown, who turned 13 last month, made almost $1,000 at the yard sale where she sold her American Girl dolls. She banked $800 and spent $200 on the Juicy Couture sweat suit, which included a skirt, pants and a jacket.

Since then, shopping has "become all about clothes," says Jill Brown.

"A couple years ago, she liked nothing better than to go to school in the same outfit as her best friend, but now she also wants to put together something that's unique to her," says Brown. "It's almost like another beginning where they still have the desire to be a little bit like everyone else but also start to become their own person. Maybe she's beginning to do that a little bit earlier."

Hooking young customers early, and keeping them on the line

Tween girls are the core of Bonne Bell's customer base, but the makeup and skin-care company works hard to attract girls as young as 4 and to keep them. Here's how:

4 to 6   7 to 10   11 to 13   14 to 18 and beyond
Pre-tween girls are introduced to makeup with hundreds of Bonne Bell Lip Smacker lip balm flavors. Some start collections.   As they enter the tween years, girls become adept at using a lip gloss wand. For them, Bonne Bell sells glossy and often shimmery Lip Smacker lip glosses.   Color becomes popular as older tweens and younger teens steer toward tinted lip balms and glosses. Bonne Bell's Pinky Lip Smacker line includes lip and nail products.   More mature flavors such as mocha and tart berries, water-inspired and vitamin-enriched glosses and bronzers are geared to teens and young women into their 20s.