You know them. They’re easy to spot. In fact, no other group of mall visitors has as clear a presence or commands as much attention as Tweens do. And they’re everywhere.
Tweens are kids eight to 14 years old, straddling the difficult divide between child and teenager. They don’t know they’re Tweens, of course: that’s industry lingo for this specific market segment.
But you do: they’re the ones who venture out right after school and travel in packs, usually following a leader. They wear pretty much the same thing—look closely and you’ll see that any individual fashion statement closely conforms to the uniform of the day. No matter the hour, the girls in particular are often dressed to the nines: make-up, jewelry, sparkles in their hair. And money in their purses.
Are there boy Tweens? Technically speaking, yes; but statistics show that boys don’t dole out the dough the way the girls do. While the boys may be drawn to some licensed products like South Park®, it’s the girls who do the serious spending. And that stands to reason, say industry insiders, because it’s adult women who are by far the primary buyers in the fashion, home décor, and gift/stationery categories. And so the industry defines Tween as female.
The Tween phenom isn’t entirely new. Pre-teens, as they’ve been known since the late ’50s, and younger teenagers were the first to follow, adopt and buy pop culture—rock ‘n’ roll and “blue jeans,” Beatles and mini-skirts, rap and baggies. Arguably the trendsetters for the population at large, Tweens play a valuable role as they blaze the fashion trail without fear. Over the years and through the life-cycle of any given fad, this group’s buying frenzy hasn’t changed. In fact, sales figures show that it’s stronger than ever.
As a result, manufacturers and specialty retailers alike are discovering this is a marketing segment too large to overlook, an opportunity too powerful to pass up. Companies also know this group is fiercely loyal to brands and products, and because today’s Tweens are tomorrow’s adults, manufacturers and their advertisers are introducing themselves to this market (and their slightly older siblings) in hopes of developing relationships that will last well beyond puberty.
For Tweens, “going to the mall” is a regular, familiar, fun event. It’s where they go to see and be seen, but just as important, they go to “buy stuff.” And they regard (and show off) their purchases as trophies of the hunt.
The smart specialty retailer is already paying attention; every specialty retailer should be targeting Tweens and embracing them—if for no other reason than that there are so many of them.
In 1995, the number of American teens increased after 16 years of decline. By 1999, 31.3 million teens represented approximately 11 percent of the US population. What’s more, the Tween and teen population will expand until 2010: the population between 12 and 19 will grow to 35 million.
“We’re going to see more and more [Tween] girls, and the disposable income is phenomenal,” says Tim Runner, a partner of In Your Face Cosmetics. Footloose and financially free, Tweens spend money. Studies show that adolescents start working at younger ages than before, thus increasing the pool of disposable income—a powerful economic force not to be ignored. “It’s amazing how much money they have,” says Cynthia Kennedy, owner of Kennedy Creations.
She’s right: according to a survey conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited, in 1999 Tweens and teens spent $105 billion of their own money. Also amazing is just how much buying influence Tweens wield. They control more of the family’s money or purchasing decisions each year, shelling out an additional $48 billion in 1999 alone. How does that happen? “Have you ever known a Tween who hasn’t gotten everything she wanted?” jokes Scott Lebowitz, Preco Manufacturing’s VP of sales and marketing. “They’ll talk Mom into it, [or] Grandma… If she wants it, she’ll find a way.” Another factor: because working parents have less time and opportunity to shop with their children than in the past, Tween girls go to the mall without them. Economic research shows they’re also buying the family’s gifts for siblings and others by themselves.
That doesn’t mean parents never shop with the kids, of course. They do. And when they shop with younger Tweens especially, carts and kiosks are a welcome, easy alternative to shlepping in and out of in-line stores. Specialty retailers, especially those who sell from RMUs, should be aware of the pull they have with this market.
Free to shop
If you’re going to “follow the money,” then your real target is the Tween girl, throngs of them, already in the common areas to meet, greet and eat… see a movie and watch the boys… and explore the mall without parental oversight—a taste of freedom and a rite of passage that marks her entrée into a whole new world: spending her own money on what she wants. “The mall becomes the social place, unlike in Europe where [young people] gather at cafés or park fountains,” says Sonia DiMaria, designer and VP of Hair Diamond. And because they buy at the mall, they’re “paradise” for specialty retailers, she says.
Because Tweens are such social beings, specialty retailers don’t have to do much active marketing: the kids are already there, on their ongoing quest. And when they score the objet du jour, when they’re the first to discover cool new products—and the merchants who carry them—they gain cachet among their peers. “Word of mouth spreads fast,” says Runner. Take it from a man with two daughters, he says: no network is speedier than the Tween’s, whose message works its way out to her universe and back home again to her older sister or even Mom, who may try new, possibly unlikely products and buy them for herself if she likes it.
But by and large, Tween-age is perfect for targeting because it marks a turning point: in a word, image. Creating and projecting an image is a concept that doesn’t really exist in the 6-year-old world. But in Tween-age, it’s the be-all and end-all. For the first time, how she looks, particularly how she dresses, is a conscious decision. “At this point—ages 11 and 12—fashion really becomes important,” says DiMaria. “These children need to express themselves, and there is definitely a social aspect. They start to have a sense of who they are and whether their friends will like them, and what you wear is so important.”
At the same time, the Tween treads a fine line between expressing her individuality and winning acceptance by the crowd. It’s a delicate balance. “They want to stand out, but not too out,” says Janet Ong, Avalanche Publishing’s director of marketing. Rarely will a Tween be first: she’ll try a trend only after she sees it on someone else. For this reason, Tweens know that the safe way to make a statement is to pick a teen idol and duplicate her look. Industry insiders generally agree that if teenage TV or film stars are wearing it—hot pink, or hair glitter, or flower prints—their fans will, too. “Tweens definitely follow celebrity trends,” says Kennedy. “They see Madonna wearing the bracelets, and it takes off from there.” DiMaria concurs: trends no longer originate with magazines but rather the music industry, especially in the US. Everybody (as Tweens might say) knows that the new Britney Spears video and the latest Teen People means a group trek to the mall again: she’s gotta have it. Right now.
Accessories after the fact
Today’s girls love being girls. In fact, the ’50s show tune “I Enjoy Being a Girl” is the central theme in a TV ad campaign for Visa that features a young female Olympic athlete. Tweens can’t get their own credit cards, of course, but advertisers know they enjoy being girls who shop.
Tweens also want items made just for them, not for big sister and certainly not for Mom. They want hearts and flowers and butterflies, and everything else not-quite-little girls are made of. Still in their childhood romantic phase, they want to look feminine but they cling to young, “girlie” themes and designs, from lines like Hello Kitty™ to Bubblegum™. “At this time they’re separating from the boys,” says Steve Brink, national sales manager for EJ Enterprises. “And this stuff is definitely ‘girlie.’ The boys can’t play with it—and they wouldn’t want to.”
The success of these manufacturers makes it clear that Tweens love to decorate themselves, especially with accessories made just for them. So while Mom still buys most of her daughter’s clothing, the Tween adorns and personalizes it. And because there are so many things they aren’t allowed to wear—they won’t get out of the house or into school in a mini-skirt, for example—accessories are the name of their game.
Because most parents don’t want their kids to radically change their hair, Tweens make a statement with the latest hair accessories instead, like the Hair Diamond. The latest fashion makes them happy; lack of permanent change to body parts makes parents happy. “The majority of these girls don’t want to upset their mothers,” says DiMaria. Meanwhile, Preco Manufacturing’s “Prettycool” line of accessories are also “girl things” that go easy with parents. Hoop and stud earrings, finger and toe rings, this genre of jewelry is a means of expression and adornment that’s tamer than blue hair and far safer than tattoos—in fact, Preco’s belly-button rings are faux clip-ons.
And they still like the pewter and silver look. Lebowitz says it will continue to be popular because they are timelessly cool and fashionable. “Plus, it’s not expensive,” he says. “These girls might not have money for the whole outfit, but they can buy that little extra thing to make it hip.”
California-born In Your Face Cosmetics, another company that caters to this market, offers a way to get “the look.” In Your Face sells a line of cosmetics from company kiosks, products that Tweens, teens and 20-somethings love. Their color powders and glitters can be used with their clear products, and buyers can have it mixed for them or do it themselves at the cart. Understanding that Tweens love personal grooming products and are among the first to try and buy new ones, Jill Bonnington, company president, closely monitors the fashion magazines to keep pace with what’s hot and develop new products. Now in its second year, In Your Face is currently licensing across the country at a rate of about two per month.
A room of her own
Tweens decorate their space and their “things” as well as themselves. They are notorious for wanting to deck out everything they come in contact with: bedroom walls, locker doors, and everything in and on them are canvases for self-expression. It’s their first foray into “decorating,” and they insist on marking their turf and their stuff in style.
Knowing there’s little she won’t leave her mark on, ultra-chic manufacturer EJ Enterprises goes deep into the Tween domain. From faux-fur leopard print lamps to sequined steering-wheel covers, devil-horned monitor covers and even fuzzy cell phone holders, the more outrageous the product, the hotter it is. “It’s a very fun business!” says Brink.
Another “hot” category is gifts and stationery. Cedco’s stickers for skateboard, locker or bedroom are also on the most-wanted list. Packaged in sets of 24, the line features Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other licenses that are “in.” (And parents like the way they peel off walls and objects when they’re outgrown.) School items are also easy sells because when they need ’em, they need ’em, and parents don’t argue. Pens, planners, calendars and journals—all tools for school, and none of them controversial.
Avalanche Publishing, manufacturers of wall (and off-the-wall) calendars, determined that the quality of many of these products for Tweens was poor. Two years ago they decided to remedy that and “go Tween.” Today, they manufacture two lines of planners and calendars: “Girl Thing,” aimed at Tweens; and “Planet Go,” geared to teens. Each line is a sleek, stylish collection of locker calendars, message boards, diaries and scrapbooks, all in cutting-edge design.
Insiders count on at least a few key product elements to stay in favor for a while longer. Girls will always go for cute—butterflies and daisies—says Brink. And due to the enduring popularity of animal prints, a big look right now, EJ Enterprises plans to expand their animal print collections with zebra, python and “painted pony.”
Trends, by definition, change with the tide. No need for the crystal ball, though. Sociologists and soothsayers aside, trends can be anticipated by astute observers in the marketplace. There are distinct commonalities in products Tweens are drawn to. By being aware of those common traits, specialty retailers can stock accordingly and profit nicely.
Brink forecasts that as long as “girl power” reigns, so will retro-style “flower power.” DiMaria says the next trend all depends on who tops the pop-music charts. “Whatever music does, fashion will follow.” To get a jump on the next Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys, stay tuned, keep an ear out, and stock up accordingly.
Look backward as well as ahead for what’s next. If it’s true that yesterday’s fashion always swings back sooner or later, then everything old—whether classic or camp—is new again to the Tween generation. This year’s ’70s disco merchandise, with its glitter and glam, is a hot trend that Brink predicts will continue. (You can keep an eye on the TV ratings for “That ’70s Show” for a clue to the trend’s strength or weakness.) The movie “Austin Powers” and its retro trip also struck a major chord with Tweens, and the look is going strong. Cedco plans to début a line of “Austin Powers” stickers, as well as expand collections to include The Power Puff Girls™ (sales show that Tweens haven’t outgrown loving their cartoons) and animated girlie characters Disco Divas and Cool Dudes in their new Bubblegum® line.
The brighter, the better
Keep an open mind when you choose merchandise. Remember who you’re targeting! An inflatable purple plastic chair might not be your choice for your bedroom, but your Tween customer has just the spot for it in hers. Her preferred colors will differ from yours, too—the brighter the pinks and purples and teals, the better.
Know that while their bedrooms and bodies might give the impression they want masses of stuff, in truth this group is surprisingly discerning. “Because they have a higher discretionary income, Tweens are very choosy and selective,” says Ong. “Now that they have their own money to spend, they do look for quality and style, and they will save their money for something they love.”
Perhaps the best advice is to stay current. Always stock something they haven’t seen before. “The girls want to see something new and different each time the