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April 28th, 2009Losing Its Cool at the Mall

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by Eric Wilson
NYTimes.com

At the entrance to almost every shopping mall in the country, you will find a directory that, if you are spatially coordinated, will give you an approximate lay of the land. You can gauge the distance from Abercrombie & Fitch to its younger-skewing cousin, Hollister, or its older cousin, Ruehl, and find the way to their closest competitors in the teenager and young adult category, Aéropostale and American Eagle Outfitters.

But you will be no closer to discerning what drives the modern youth from one store to the next; what differentiates one’s frayed cargo shorts from another’s; or why one of them, Abercrombie, is facing a consumer revolt, while others are paradoxically upbeat. A clue: It has to do with price.

This spring, spending by teenagers, a closely studied but rarely understood segment of the population, is off by 14 percent, a direct reflection of the economy, according to a report this month by the investment bank Piper Jaffray. And that is having a profound effect on an already unraveling mall culture, where deep discounters and stores known for heavy promotions are suddenly the popular destinations and aspirational brands are struggling to fit in.

Teenagers are noticing. “Labels are becoming less and less of a priority for people throughout my school,” said Chelsea Orcutt, 17, a senior at the Mount Saint Mary Academy near Buffalo, where the Walden Galleria shopping center includes all of the above-mentioned stores, plus many more options for teenagers who favor a sunny West Coast surfer style or those who prefer a goth ensemble to highlight their black nail polish and lipstick. Ms. Orcutt, a bit less casual in her personal style, favors Macy’s, Old Navy and American Eagle, which, she pointed out, keep teen budgets in mind.

“Labels and designer purses – I’m not seeing them as frequently,” said Ms. Orcutt, who had participated in a survey on teen spending for the Hearst Magazines network of Web sites and was approached to speak about the subject for this article. When asked why that might be, she replied, without hesitation, “because of the crisis.”

During years of rampant consumerism, where teenagers shopped was often more closely tied to what was happening in the pages of US Weekly or InStyle than their families’ financial circumstances. Empires like Abercrombie & Fitch were built on the premise that their products, even $80 jeans and $30 T-shirts with provocative graphics, would be perceived as luxury items if they were sold in the right way. But as teenagers’ priorities rapidly shift away from brands they now perceive as too expensive, the pecking order of mall stores has changed.

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