Big retailers seek teens (and parents)

Schiffman says Bloomingdale's and other upscale department stores appeal to teens because their assortments and atmospheres are superior. "If you offer enough," he says, "you can get teens to go anywhere. J.C. Penney and Sears are just not pulling that."

But Adriene Solomon, like Elizabeth Crouch, disagrees, stressing the other side of the Penney story.

Seeing Penney as hip

"My children love to shop at the 'trendy' stores: Hollister, Aéropostale, Abercrombie & Fitch, Wet Seal, Journeys, Champs (Sports) and any other tennis shoe store," says Solomon of Missouri City, Texas. "They most definitely don't like to shop at the top department stores like Macy's and Dillard's, but they will shop at J.C. Penney," because its styles seem trendy.

Roland Solomon, 15, says he'd go to Penney even if his mom weren't driving there, because he likes their jeans and shirts.

Yet, even the label "teen" is fraught with contradictions. A 13-year-old shopper bears little resemblance to a teen heading to college — at which point, says retail brand consultant Ken Nisch, high school posturing suddenly seems uncool.

"Things like resale gets to be a big trend in college, because there's more sense that it's not OK to show off what you have too much," Nisch says. "You might have needed an 'outfit' to go to high school, but when you go to college, God forbid if you have an 'outfit.' That means you're trying too hard."

LittleMissMatched, which sells brightly colored and patterned socks, loungewear and other apparel, finds that sales drop once kids head to college. They don't want to draw as much attention to clothes or to be viewed less seriously, says co-founder Arielle Eckstut.

But teen shoppers do want to look as if they know how to dress. Like Penney, the young women's apparel store Dots is redesigning stores to provide more fashion guidance. The retail design and branding firm FRCH, which is handling the redesign, is using splashy graphics and style tips. The goal, says managing creative director Steve McGowan, is to establish an "emotional connection" with shoppers.

"It's retail theater," McGowan says.

But how to reach the elusive teens in the first place?

"Newspaper and direct mail are useless against teens, and TV is not very effective," Boylson says. "Teens are much more in the digital space."

Several retailers are using social-networking sites as marketing tools. They're creating store profile pages, just the way teenagers build personal pages. H&M's boasts 60,000 "fans" — Facebook users who add a link to the H&M page on their own profile pages.

Some of the retail pages include photo albums of the store's seasonal collections and let fans upload photos of themselves wearing the store's clothing. Others provide podcasts of interviews with designers and links to virtual dressing rooms. And they send e-mails alerting fans to sales and discount codes.

American Eagle, which has nearly 30,000 fans, has a Facebook page. So do Hollister, Target, Forever 21 and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Facebook is "such a game-changer," says Dave Hendricks of Datran Media, which helps brands reach online consumers. "Facebook allows retailers to create a more viral experience. The tastemakers among youth spend all of their time in social media."

Penney is targeting teens through ads in theaters, interactive website features and mobile marketing.

"Teens know when they're being marketed to, so you have to be very careful," Boylson says.

Nor can you change their perceptions overnight.

"We understand it's about getting them to love the brands — not just J.C. Penney," says Liz Sweney, Penney's EVP for women's and girls' apparel.

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