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When Teens Talk, Companies Listen

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amber Keppler makes an unlikely fashion statement: platinum blond hair with a hint of orange showing through, a fuzzy blue coat and the plastic baggie carrying the tongue piercing she acquired during a trip to London.

The 17-year-old senior at Redondo Union High School is one of six teen girls sipping colas and munching pizza in a West Los Angeles corporate boardroom. They’re here because they’re cool. Opposite them, searching for clues to cool, are half a dozen adults who scribble insights that could help their employers cash in on emerging teen trends.

Keeping up with elusive, upscale trendsetters such as Amber is difficult, because when the mood strikes, or when her followers copy her style, Amber charges off in another fashion direction. When she visits foreign countries, she adds a new piercing--including a belly-button piece from Mexico. Days after this meeting, the orange tint in her hair will give way to six blue streaks.

“I do things that I like, usually way before or way after everyone else,” said the well-spoken college-bound student who hopes to become a doctor. “The fashion industry has got to be one of the toughest industries out there . . . because of people like me.”

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It’s only going to get tougher for companies that lose sight of influential teens such as Amber.

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Teens are reshaping retail markets in a manner not seen since their baby boomer parents poured into shopping malls. The teen population hit 27 million in 1998 and will continue to outpace overall population growth through 2010. Teen spending mushroomed to $141 billion in 1998, up 41% from $100 billion in 1994.

Fortunes are being won and lost in the teen fashion derby as youthful consumers force such traditional favorites as Levi Strauss & Co. to close factories while such competitors as Abercrombie & Fitch Co. are turned into red-hot brands with stock prices to match.

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Marketers are ratcheting up research into what makes teens tick. Some pay teens to report on what’s hot. Others host invitation-only gatherings so adults can listen in as teens dissect commercials, movies and music.

* Teen People, published by Time Warner Inc., uses telephone calls, online surveys and pizza parties, including the recent three-hour session with Amber in Los Angeles, to monitor 5,000 “trend spotters” among their readers who critique advertisements, relate their vision of cool and, occasionally, write articles for the magazine.

* Bates USA assembled a coed team of 36 “teen reporters” who earn $360 a year--and a $100 bonus--for completing six assignments dealing with such topics as what’s important in their lives and where they expect to be in 15 years.

* When it decided to market its Lycra fabric directly to teens--as opposed to their mothers--DuPont Co. hired 30 “teen consultants” who earn a modest fee to help the Delaware-based chemical and fiber company plug into teen fashion trends.

Other companies, including Levi Strauss, M&M;/Mars, Reebok and Channel One also use teen panels to unlock teen minds, hearts and pocketbooks. “So many things going on in their lives are a mystery to adult advertisers,” said Janice M. Figueroa, senior vice president of Bates USA.

Insights sometimes are at odds with traditional research. “When you ask kids what’s most important about their lives, they answer, ‘How good I feel about myself,’ ” Figueroa said, “They don’t say peer pressure and the need to fit in. That’s an incredible difference, certainly a change from what the psychology books say, and what most [adults] remember.”

Bates USA used data generated by its panel to help steer a client away from an “in-your-face, antisocial, rebellious” ad campaign, Figueroa said. “Teens recognize that being a teen means pushing the envelope, but they’re put off by adults who don’t respect them for what they really are.”

The online experience also is reshaping how teens view themselves, researchers say. Pimples, dirty hair and a pudgy body aren’t as important online as in the real world. “No matter what they look like, or how geeky they think they are, there are affinity groups to accept you online,” Figueroa said. “The Internet is really making kids quite different than generations in the past.”

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Teens can be brutally frank when asked for their opinions. “There’s no sense of inhibitions,” said Pacific Sunwear President Timothy M. Harmon, who regularly attends focus groups. “When the facilitator takes a break, they’ll fix their hair, put on makeup, crack jokes. . . . I was even mooned by a guy on one occasion.”

Marketers cast a wide net to find cool teens who aren’t afraid to speak their minds. Teenage Research Unlimited, a Northbrook, Ill.-based market research company, assembled 500 candidates for Bates USA to choose from. The ad agency used questionnaires and telephone calls to select a geographically diverse panel with urban and suburban teens from traditional households and one-parent families.

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Marketers leave no stone unturned in their search for coolness. To help foster openness, Teen People panelists are asked to bring along items with special meaning. Amber’s explanation for the body piercing and a camera: “I like to remember good memories when I’m facing a bad situation.”

Bates USA handed out disposable cameras that teens used to create collages. Some concentrated on friends and family; others shot pictures of their homes and surroundings. Most collages described active lifestyles that contradict the image of slacker teens.

DuPont brought 15 teen consultants on a daylong shopping spree at Los Angeles’ Beverly Center. Among the market intelligence gathered by DuPont Teen Initiative Manager Sheryl Parente was the fact that teens didn’t like the fit of one company’s line of cotton/twill pants made with Lycra. Parente quickly passed word of the problem along to the manufacturer.

DuPont also hired coaches to help teens from schools such as Santa Monica High School, Pasadena City College and Taft High School in Reseda to better express their opinions. The speaking skills were tested when teens were featured during a daylong marketing conference in New York attended by DuPont’s business customers.

Marketers are divided over whether teen research is an accurate predictor of future trends.

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“We don’t create a fashion or invent it,” Harmon said. “We only recognize it--hopefully, early on. And teen panels aren’t always a good predictor of future trends and fads.”

But marketers can’t afford to turn a deaf ear to teens. Pacific Sunwear experimented a year ago with selling harder-edged fashions appealing to a subset of teens. The chain figured it could boost sales by adding the urban-oriented apparel. But kids who favored the alternative look said they wanted their own stores. The Anaheim Hills-based company responded with a 15-store chain called D.E.M.O. “Now, each set of kids has their own store,” Harmon said. “We listened and learned.”

Adults get an earful when teens are asked what’s hot and what’s not. There was no shortage of opinions expressed when Teen People invited Foothill Ranch-based Wet Seal Inc. to meet Amber and the five other girls from Southern California.

The girls quickly turned thumbs down to a quirky fanny pack with several separate pockets that the junior women’s apparel chain will sell this summer. (Time will tell. Wet Seal is betting that the fanny pack will be a big seller.)

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Wet Seal hasn’t rushed into online retailing, figuring that the market isn’t yet mature. That’s fine with Teen People’s panelists, who spend hours online but don’t see the Internet as a shopping vehicle.

“What are you going to do to make it worth my while?” asked 19-year-old Carrie Kravetz, a USC freshman and the oldest panelist. “Besides, the mall is a very social place. It’s a fun thing. And I don’t know how much fun you’d have shopping on the Internet.”

Retail chain executives such as Wet Seal President Ed Thomas might yearn for simpler times when New York and Los Angeles set teen trends in motion. Now, Thomas says, “there are five or six trends ongoing, and each is borrowing from the other.” The fashion influx is fueled in part, observers say, by confidence instilled in teens who are growing up during an unrivaled economic boom.

The shopping haunts favored by members of Teen People’s panel reflect that diversity. Kravetz includes thrift stores on her shopping list, while a 14-year-old Santa Monica student at the Teen People session favored Mossimo, Polo and Calvin Klein.

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Advertising--good or bad--doesn’t go unnoticed. The teens unanimously trashed a Calvin Klein advertisement featuring a young girl with what the teens described as a “druggy” look. They frowned at a Davidoff toilet water ad showing a nude woman--but giggled when one girl called for more naked boys in advertisements.

They ripped a TJ Maxx ad describing their time of life as “the awkward years.” They expressed dismay that so many advertisements show perfect models. Yet all agreed it would be nice to look like models in carefully orchestrated ads.

Researchers say critiques offered by brand-conscious teens are a reminder that adults don’t always know the answers. “Sometimes [adults] are prejudiced by their own love of a product or a creative concept,” said Irma Zandl, a New York-based consultant. “They don’t see how the whole things falls down . . , but the kids tell them it’s not very compelling, it doesn’t make them want to buy.”

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Teen Spending Boom

Nourished by allowances, earnings and funds provided by family members, teens spent $141 billion in 1998. Beyond that, teens had a big say in how their families spent $240 billion, researchers say. A look at average teen weekly spending and how the U.S. teenage population is expected to increase through 2010:


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