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Spring 2003 The Teen Scene

“That’s sooo 10 minutes ago,” she says as she rolls her eyes, dismissing this or that as way passé. She’s a teen, and she knows what she’s talking about.

So do most teens. They want what their peers, the media and the latest crop of teen idols show and tell them they want. Today’s high-tech communications send instant targeted messages about everything important to them. The result: they want what they want the minute they want it. And retailers who sell accessories to the teen market, or want to, need to pay attention to teens and keep up with them.

From as early as the 1920s, falling in love with and buying accessories is what teens do, particularly the girls. Today’s nearly 32 million teens spent $170 billion in 2002, according to a study by Teenage Research Unlimited, a market-research firm. That’s an average of $100+ a week—per teen—spent on stuff, including countless accessories. Why accessories? For several reasons. Socially, teen years are a time of conforming to the dictates of peer trendsetters, a dynamic that begins in the tween years (8-12). It’s a way to “signal” that they’re a member in good standing and know what’s what. At the same time, they want to be noticed, to express some individuality and call attention to it—self-expression through decoration. And finally, it’s about money. While many teens have a hefty chunk of change to spend on a regular basis, most can’t afford new wardrobes or even key pieces dictated by each new issue of Seventeen or Teen Vogue. Not if they want to buy things like CDs and fast food, too. But they can sport the latest accessories—jewelry, hair accents, body jewelry, and more. So that’s what they buy, usually on impulse. Accessories are an affordable, instant, fun fix—till the next must-have items come along.

Look, Dick! Look, Jane!

No matter what the individual teen’s look or fashion statement, most teens want to be seen—in school, at the mall, wherever. Eye-catching accessories like today’s big, shiny charms or something with flashing lights attract attention: If an item says “Look at me,” they flock to it—as long as it’s on the “approved” list of the moment. At one end of the style spectrum is the “alt” (alternative) look, as sported by teen star Kelly Osbourne on MTV’s The Osbournes. Arguably the most emulated example in this style category, she usually wears one in-your-face, can’t-miss piece like an enormous orchid hair clip, plus an eclectic array of earrings, chokers, rings and body jewelry. (Less is definitely not more with this group.)

But there’s not a great deal of crossover: what works for Kelly Osbourne won’t suit today’s Grace Kelly type, or even someone who’s between the two extremes. The more mainstream teen—whether hipster/urban, prep/suburban or some of each—is influenced by the young stars (and their stylists) of music, TV, Hollywood, and the runways of Europe and New York. And all of it enters teen consciousness instantly via the media.

The Young Ms. O. notwithstanding, rumors of the demise of glam are greatly exaggerated. If anything, glam rocks. Case in point: The continued appearance of jewelry like oversized “chandelier” earrings on actresses walking down award-show red carpets says all’s well with old-Hollywood swell. Glamour translated to everyday teens—long, crystal earrings, rhinestone pavé charms, chunky gemstone rings and so much more—is expected to be in vogue for some time. As J.Lo goes, so also goes the female teen nation—almost. The glam of Jennifer, Britney or Christina differ from each other’s, and even more from that of new teen stars like Avril Lavigne with her singular tomboy/skater-girl chic. And for every teen who copies her, just as many adopt the look of a Mandy Moore or a Gwen Stefani.

All style variations aside, what makes an A-list accessory? Hint: It has to be fun. Fun to look at, fun to wear, and should evoke a fun reaction. Even better if it moves, has fragrance, or changes form or color. Finally, and possibly most important, it must have distinct, one-of-a-kind character. With an enormous array of accessories out there, the key to a top seller is uniqueness. “We’ve found that with teens, it’s all about being an individual and expressing their creative side,” says Renee Levy, president of Charm It. “What they want is to be their own designer.”

imagePredicated on the very concept of customization, Charm It’s innovative “charming system” includes more than 1,300 pewter, crystal and enamel charms. If a teen customer is interested in sports, cats, cosmetics, there’s a mini catcher’s mitt, a kitty, a lipstick. And the list goes on. The charms are easy to clip on, so wearers can transfer them to and from necklaces, bracelets, anklets, even notebooks, pens and picture frames, all part of Charm It’s line. “It’s not just about jewelry—it’s the interchangeable charms’ multi-use that makes them so dynamite,” says Levy. New designs are continually added to feed the demand.

Red-hot right now: letter charms. Teens can express themselves by spelling out monograms, names, words or phrases. Show school spirit—spell out the school’s name on a notebook. Wear your devotion—put the boyfriend’s name on an anklet. And so on. Levy says older teens in particular are snatching them up, and the charms’ popularity is stretching into the adult market. Also hot: the company’s recently launched birthday line of birthstones and mini-cakes. Response has been excellent, especially since the designs make great gifts. But no matter the design or theme, Levy says you can’t go wrong selling charms. “Even when the retail economy may not be great, [the charms] have consistently done phenomenally.”

Teens want conversation pieces, and that’s why jewelry designer Carolyn Forsman calls her line “conversation piece jewelry.” “If it spins, sparkles, flips, flashes, glows, winks, snaps or slinks,” says Forsman, it’s in her arsenal. Celebrating 20 years in the business, Forsman is a New York-based pop-culture guru who continually researches what teens want—and gives it to them via her fun, colorful website. Featured in People magazine among others, her wares include working compass rings; marabou hair ties in colors like fuchsia, olive and eggplant, which can double as napkin rings; rings that feature pansies floating in Lucite; lots of sparkling red-white-and-blue rhinestone charms and other pieces; and the newly débuted, ultra-trendy stretch bracelet showcasing 12 assorted picture tiles. Among her top 10 sellers: Stretch Marks rubber-band bracelets bearing various words (e.g., “Diva,” “Brainy,” “Only Child”); Flash n Trash rings with a large, acrylic gemstone in vivid colors; the Teddy Bear Flag rhinestone charm; glass bead Gypsy bracelets; and mini-star necklaces. Also popular are feminine ribbon bracelets and necklaces adorned with crystals in rainbow colors.

Her pieces have teen-friendly prices (most just under $10), and all of them are upbeat, upscale, tasteful and fun. “While we do what’s cool, everything’s also mother-approved,” says Forsman, who regularly sells to museum stores and high-end contemporary art stores. No grunge, goth or punk on her website, and no body jewelry for piercings, but she does have flashing-light items and stick-on bindi jewels, another top seller. Her slightly edgier wares would win the approval of trendsetters like Lavigne or Pink (singer Alecia Moore). “It’s a fine line,” Forsman says. “We do what’s cool, but there’s also a taste level.” For example, the Stretch Marks girls’ bracelets include “Racy” and “Pushover,” but never “Bitch” (or worse); the guys’ bracelets say nothing stronger than “Hunk.” Also for guys: fully operational On the Level rings in bright yellow-green (level bubble and all). And if he and she both wear them, they’re going steady (just so you know).

More of Forsman’s right-now items include Double Helix bracelets shaped like the DNA molecule in jewel-tone metallics or silverplate. It’s a Scientific American top 20 gift for 2002, and is featured in the Museum of Modern Art Design Store in New York. Credentials aside, the bracelet is slim enough to fit even the slenderest wrists (including kids’), and sleek enough for teens with sophisticated taste. And it’s especially popular with the more studious ones, who might otherwise ignore teen fashion trends. Forsman’s perennial best-sellers include holiday-inspired items such as Snow Globe Rings filled with glitter, and Mini Christmas Lights necklaces that can adorn either the wearer or a very tiny Christmas or bonsai tree.

Hair today

imageGood hair is important to teens, especially the girls, of course. They buy record amounts of hair preps, spending millions on shampoo, conditioners and styling products, according to a report published by Efficient Consumer Response Management Co., which points to the teen market as the driving force in rising sales.

As with almost everything else, teens are hooked on instant fixes for hair. Short-cuts to perfection include a range of tricks and accessories from clips to cover-ups (like newsboy caps) to faux hairpieces and extensions. Teen girls love faux hair, which sells especially well for several reasons. They allow a girl to sport different styles daily without the work, which takes skill and time. In addition, the celeb factor comes into play. The music and film stars teens idolize change their ‘dos often, and so must the teens who emulate them. Aguilera, for example, often wears hair pieces that feature funky shades like burgundy and royal blue woven in. As a result, sales of faux hair in offbeat colors are currently strong.

According to Steven Margu, president of manufacturer Henry Margu, “the appeal is that the pieces are not cost-prohibitive.” While teens have spending money, “they won’t spend $50 for a hairpiece. But if it’s under $30, however, they’ll consider it,” he says. As a result, his company’s Hair Accents line (ponytail wraps made of faux hair), for example, and their higher-priced Mane Attraction line (longer “fall” or ponytail styles that attach with butterfly clips) are all priced at or below the $30 mark.

Hottest right now: long pieces; wraps that incorporate mini-braids; and dreadlock-style ponytail wraps. Curly or straight? At the moment, straight. “It’s cyclical,” says Margu. “Even though over the past couple years curly keeps getting hyped in the salon and fashion magazines, when it comes down to it the straighter pieces are definitely more popular… perhaps with a soft wave or slight layer.” What’s next for faux hair? Margu says it’s tricky to predict, especially with teens. His best estimate? Braids and more braids. He expects their current popularity to grow even stronger.

The hole story

Whether you find it attractive or downright appalling, most teens—male as well as female—have had something pierced. (According to a 2002 Mayo Foundation study of college undergrads, 42 percent of the guys and 60 percent of the girls have at least one piercing other than dainty little holes in their ears.) The most popular spots are earlobe and navel (the least popular: eyebrow, nose, lip, and further down).

Facial piercing is gaining some popularity to accommodate jewelry like the silver or crystal “Marilyn Monroe” stud just above the upper lip (the location of Marilyn’s famous mole). Eyebrow and nose rings are making a comeback (did you know they were gone?), and the next thing in navel rings (now considered fairly tame) are reverse “Banana” jewelry, with posts inserted through the top. For the boys, tribal and gothic styles in earrings, and jewelry for piercings below the bottom lip and on the eyebrow.

The latest trend in “extreme” piercing: earlobe stretching, a look that emulates an African custom. Popularized by a number of today’s hard-edge rock bands, it’s a look and a process that gradually allows the wearer to use larger and thicker inserts (“plugs” and “tunnels”) that can span as much as 5mm. Popular plugs look like small tusks or bone; the most popular tunnels are thick silver rings with open centers.

To stay on top of the body-jewelry wave, body-jewelry manufacturer Shining Light (San Diego, CA) employs design teams in cities around the world, including trend-setting Tokyo. Catering to the full range of teen fashion types from demure to alternative and beyond, Shining Light breaks its line into three categories so that teens—and specialty retailers—can easily find what they want. Ed Lammers, the company’s sales and marketing director, says that in their Extreme category, teen guys favor plugs and tunnels in bone, horn and other natural/organic materials. New in the Trendy category are inexpensive UV-reactive items. Teens like them for the glow they create in club lighting, and retailers like them because they’re priced to sell in greater quantity. Lammers says teens also like the new Trendy earrings and navel rings, which feature colorful strands of dangling crystals. And in the Traditional line, both white and yellow gold (which had been “out” for some time) are redhot among sophisticated teens who appreciate the classic look of higher-end jewelry. Also expected to cross over and score well with Trendy and Traditional buyers are Shining Lights’ new Victorian and Crop Circle lines with crystals that spin; both lines include navel rings and other pieces. And finally, Lammers says that whether for crystals, lights or anything else, this year’s must-have colors are clear, pink, and light purple—in that order. Everything else is equally (un)popular after that.

Catch ‘em while you can

Teens follow fashion—which means they’re fickle, and flit from one fad to the next. Retailers have to tune in and move fast to cash in on the teen scene. If they don’t offer the latest must-have, the teen customer will take her fashion savvy, her friends and her cash elsewhere. And the word spreads fast: which stores and carts “have it” and which don’t. It’s not easy keeping up—their preferences seem to change by the minute, shifting with each new music video and teen magazine that comes out. Confusing? Sure. Tough to keep up with? Not if you tap into what teens watch, listen to, read, and say.

Perhaps the one thing specialty retailers can bank on is that teens’ tastes will change. To catch them at the height of this or that must-have, you have no choice but to stock what they want. And to do that, you have to be on top of the game. It’s not difficult—in fact, you might even find it a fun diversion from the more serious aspects of running a business. Your best bet? Look at them. Continually pay attention to teens in the mall or other gathering places like the movies, ball games, and anywhere they go near their schools. Take note of what they’re wearing and carrying. Your second source of information: the magazines they read, the movies and TV they watch (if you can stand it), the music they listen to (ditto), and the websites that exist expressly for them (see the Check It Out sidebar). If you sell to teens or plan to, make it a habit to check the scene often.

But perhaps the shortest, fastest route to the real 411—the inside story—is to regularly ask the teens themselves. Do you have some of your own at home? Talk to them and their friends. or talk to the teens in your mall, and certainly your teen customers. Ask what they like and want to buy right now. Chances are, most will be flattered (OK, amazed) that you asked, and happy to tell you what they like… and what they don’t.

Once you have this minute’s answers, you can take action. Whether you want to start small with a selection of impulse items or add a new, full-blown category to your existing merchandise, stock the right-now, gotta-have-it accessories they love. As long as you keep current and nicely stocked, fashion-savvy teens will reward you for it.

Lauryn Mittleman

Mittleman is a regular contributor to Specialty Retail Report

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