As kids get savvy, marketers move down the age scale
O'Donnell, USA TODAY
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
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
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, zebo.com, on which to
chronicle and quantify their possessions, and millions
•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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
|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.
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