Teen Consumers Fuel Thriving Prom Industry

ByRomy Ribitzky

April 5, 2002 -- For her upcoming prom, 17-year-old Atlanta junior Nicolle Kuritsky plans to spend $200 on a dress and $70 to get her hair done, and is still buying makeup and accessories.

Her date will dole out up to $150 for a rental tux, at least $100 on a limousine (provided they share it with at least two more couples), as much as $50 for a corsage and $100 to $150 on the prom tickets.

That means between them, they expect to spend more than $800 on their one-night blowout. And that's considered reasonable.

"I know of one family that spent $20,000 on prom night," says fashion analyst Sherry Maysonave of Austin, Texas. "It's like the cost of a wedding. It's really gotten out of hand."

It's no wonder that the price tag can get so high — the purveyors of prom products have crafted a $2.75 billion market from a wide variety of dresses, accessories, flowers, beauty products, and other prom-related "necessities."

Check out what some teens are wearing for Prom 2002.

And businesses are chasing an even larger purse. Teenage girls — arguably the most desirable of prom consumers — are big spenders. A 2001 Rand Youth Poll found 13- to 19-year-old females splurge in the neighborhood of $64 billion a year, $31 billion of it on beauty and fashion.

"Kids now have a lot of discretionary income from working after school or allowances," says Seventeen magazine publisher Ellen Abramowitz. "The teen market has largely been exempt from the recession."

The Search for Evening Wear — And Beyond

With so much money at stake, what are prom marketers offering young, powerful consumers? An opportunity to spend like adults, an experience experts agree most adolescents take seriously.

Teens, especially girls, start planning early for the prom, says Abramowitz. And what seems to drive their choices and expenditures is a need to belong and be accepted by their peer group, adds Maysonave.

The desire to fit in is not lost upon the industry, members of which happily provided online resources allowing teens to e-mail dress images to friends, Abramowitz says.

"Manufacturers are aware of how important this night is to teens," says Jacqueline Azria-Palumbo, fashion director at CosmoGirl, Cosmopolitan's teen publication.

And companies know that if teens can pay, they will. That's where the businesses such as hair styling and makeup, nail salons, spas, florists, limousine companies and restaurants come in.

Seeking prom bucks, toothpaste seller Crest began running ads featuring a formally dressed teen for its Whitestrips whitening system as early as February to give teens enough time to transform their less than dazzling smiles by prom night.

Makeup firm Cover Girl encourages young women to buy their makeup ahead of prom night so they can experiment and choose their best look.

And clothing retailer Rampage gained greater visibility for its line of prom dresses and accessories by promoting them alongside an online contest to win a day of primping followed by dinner for two and limousine service to the big dance.

The Price of Acceptance

All the advertising and pressure to look perfect can have negative side effects, warns Maysonave, especially for those who can't afford the increasingly pricy evening.

Experts have likened the prom to a glamorous event of almost Oscar proportions. But when young men can't finance the extravagant $400-per-couple limo, the five-star dinner and the $200 in flowers, they can feel very badly about themselves, she says, just as badly as young women who may not be able to afford the designer gown and day at the spa.

Still, teens are not necessarily looking to be frugal, argues Richard Laermer, author of trendSpotting. But the economic downturn may have given the coveted teen demographic some cause to pause and consider their spending abilities more carefully.

"I'm really excited for our prom, but I'm not planning on spending a lot of money because it's just a one-time thing. I probably won't wear my dress again," says Carla Bloomberg, Kuritsky's classmate and organizer of the Atlanta International School's Prom Committee.

Find out how to stretch your prom dollar.

Teens' budding sense of individuality can also suffer because of the overwhelming desire to fit in, notes Azria-Palumbo, who observed young women's reactions to dresses when working on CosmoGirl's prom issue.

"When girls [saw] funky, unique, one-of-a-kind dresses they would love it and get really excited," she says. "But in the end they'd still buy the classic, accepted look that's been dominating the runways and award shows' red carpets."

"You don't see women buying the sensible basic black dress that fits them well," adds Maysonave, whose daughter bought a blue sequined dress to her prom a few years ago, but hasn't worn it since. "Instead, they select dresses that are not always flattering for the sake of fitting in with their friends and their notions of what's hot now. And it's forcing teens to act like adults before many are ready."

But having to make the kinds of choices that reflect their developing personalities can be beneficial and fun, especially if teens learn responsibility, says Maysonave. "On the whole, prom is a good thing for teens. It allows them to celebrate, enjoy the anticipation of the evening and have a good time. They get to feel — and look — like a movie star."

One Ohio mom would have to agree. Teri Misener, a dress buyer for Ohio-based Universe Bride, says that a few years ago she wouldn't consider buying an expensive dress for her daughter's prom. "Now that I have a 5-year-old, I know that if she'll want a $500 dress, I'll find a way to buy it."

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