If drawing teens is crucial to gaining both the youth and adult crowds, some retailers face an institutional problem, too: Department stores can feel too physically unwieldy for teenagers, says Dan Hill of research firm Sensory Logic: "It's very hard to hug a giant."
Some teens may even eschew department-store shopping as a way to distance themselves from their parents, says Leon Schiffman, a marketing professor at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y.
"It's somewhat of a natural process to reject the kinds of retail environments that your parents are associated with," Schiffman says.
That can frustrate parents. Wendy Queal of Hutchinson, Kan., says her 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter are "addicted" to American Eagle Outfitters and also favor Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister.
"They like the stores with the loud music playing when they go in," Queal says. "They both told me to not buy them things from Dillard's anymore, which is where I have always bought a majority of their clothes. At this point in their lives, their shopping tends to be all about the name."
Well aware of this, Penney executives are stressing its brands' names — not its company name — much as Oldsmobile did years ago, when it began introducing trendier cars. Penney last month announced an exclusive new apparel line, Fabulosity, designed by reality TV star and former model Kimora Lee Simmons. In July, it will launch another brand, Decree, which Boylson says is "more updated than Abercrombie … with the same look, same feel, at half the price."
The clothes will be sold in departments with better lighting and more displays showing how to wear different outfits. (Penney's research found teens were seeking more fashion guidance from stores.) Apparel will be divided into different "lifestyles," ranging from wholesome active wear to hip city styles.
The Decree brand will be marketed "as if it's a national brand," Boylson says. "We don't beat them over the head with J.C. Penney."
The teen psyche
Youths are among the few categories of shoppers who seem comfortable spending freely these days. Other factors driving the interest in the teen market:
•Teens say they're closer with their families than the previous generation, Gen X, said at the same age, according to TRU. A recent TRU survey found that nine out of 10 teens say they're "close" to their parents; 75% agreed they "like to do things with their family"; and 59% say family dinners are "in."
•Teens are their households' de facto technology officers. They set up iPods and iPhones, troubleshoot PCs and spend hours with cellphones and social-networking sites. These 24/7 modes of rapid-fire communication allow teens — as well as brand marketers — to ignite interest in shopping trends faster than ever.
An informal USA TODAY survey of its panel of shoppers found teens are quick to name small specialty stores, such as American Eagle, as favorites. But they're habitually inconsistent.
John Crouch of Charleston, W.Va., says his 15-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, loves Delia's, American Eagle and Aéropostale. Yet, in the past two years, she's also become a fan of Penney and says it's now stylish. How about Sears? No way. Crouch says Elizabeth calls Sears' apparel "old ladies' clothing."