By  on July 9, 2007

Even with the newest gadgets vying for teens' attention, back-to-school is expected to remain a top-selling season for apparel and accessories.

This was the consensus of a panel of analysts, retailers and fashion forecasters at a recent roundtable, who also said they were placing their bets on American Eagle Outfitters and J. Crew to score big with teens this season. The panelists concluded the teen apparel segment tended to be immune to the effects of higher fuel costs and a softening housing market.

"Our concern is not so much gas prices or mortgages, it's the other categories vying for the kid dollar," said Kathy Bradley-Riley, senior vice president of merchandising at The Doneger Group. "The right electronic equipment, the right cell phone, the iPod; there's only a certain amount of dollars to spend, and those categories are getting first preference as opposed to, ‘Do I have the right shorts?'"

Participants in the panel discussion also included Dana Telsey, founder and chief research officer at Telsey Advisory Group; Tim Bess, market analyst at Doneger; Irma Zandl, principal from the Zandl Group, and Betsy Thompson, director of public relations at Talbots. The roundtable was held at WWD's editorial offices and was hosted by Berns Communications Group.

On the trend front, the panelists said baby-doll tops and the continuation of Eighties-inspired styles should give teens a strong reason to shop this season.

"With the newness out there and what retailers are doing to draw traffic to their stores, and with their marketing investments, we certainly feel we should have a better second half than first half of the year," Telsey predicted.

This year, retailers are doing a better job of targeting the customer and using multimedia functions, such as Web sites and e-mail, to better communicate what is happening in the stores.

Among the panelists, American Eagle Outfitters was cited as the clear winner for b-t-s. "They have a track record, they're trend-right, they have merchandise that the kid understands, their prices are correct," Bess said. "I also think their Web site is brilliant; it's really easy to navigate, while some of the others out there are difficult. And I think that the kid is actually on it."For the college-age and older teen, J. Crew is expected to win big, especially in classic basics. "They're easy to understand. It's washed down and messy, which the college kid gets," Bess said.

J. Crew's system of allowing customers to order out-of-stock merchandise in the store is a convenience teens are using.

Fleece will return in full force later in the season, the panelists said, and the continuation of shorts in different styles and lengths will be important. "We're in a big prints cycle. Color has started to return. Layering and volume are still key," Bradley-Riley said.

In denim, skinny and straight-leg will remain popular, but there will also be a lot of emphasis on the wide leg and higher waist. "It almost seems like for b-t-s, 20 percent of the denim is stuff that was skinny last year and high-waisted and wide-leg this year. The rest is all of your basics," Telsey said.

The proliferation of Eighties rock 'n' roll is helping denim retailers such as Levi's sell skinny jeans. "It's Eighties, but it has a 2008 twist," Bradley-Riley said. "It's not Eighties Madonna. There are elements of the Eighties."

Bess said online retailers such as Karmaloop, Metropark and Commonwealth have done a good job appealing to the progressive street markets, and department stores are also hitting the mark with urban apparel and accessories. "They have the floor space allotted and I think that they'll win when it comes to true urban," Bess said.

Specialty retailer Zumiez is catering to this market space successfully, with unusual T-shirt brands, board shorts and footwear.

While luxury merchandise is not a big portion of the teen market, there has been a surge in brand awareness at an early age. Designer accessories, especially handbags, as well as premium denim, are popular among teens who are looking to mimic their favorite celebrities.

"We find in general only about 10 percent of teens genuinely buy luxury, like going to L.A. and dropping $1,000. But they do set trends for everybody else," Telsey said.

"It's more important to have an exclusive item. It doesn't necessarily have to be a high price, it just has to be the right item that's hard to find and exclusive," Bess said. "I also think a lot more kids are shopping, believe it or not, in the Barneys of the world, definitely walking through those more premium designer stores, looking for the next cool brand or item."At the other end of the spectrum, teens are also attracted to discounters like Target and Wal-Mart.

"This is where I hear mom and teenagers going to a store like that to get everything. And especially with gas prices, it's a good thing to be able to go to one store where you can get everything all at once," Zandl said.

"I think some of the midtier department stores are doing a really good job of having fashion-right products on the floors at affordable prices," Bradley-Riley said.

More than ever, teens are looking for instant gratification and want to purchase more buy-now, wear-now items. "The push to wear it now is very real. And every year it seems like shorts will last longer than what we've seen in years past," Telsey said.

The last week in July will be key for b-t-s, but the season will continue through September and even into October.

"We believe the stores will be selling a lot of alternative-length bottoms — Bermuda shorts, skimmer shorts, in new transitional color palettes — and they'll have a more fall undertone. Sweater deliveries have been pushed back, long pants deliveries have been pushed back. Buy-now, wear-now is key," Bradley-Riley said.

Despite teens' desire for wear-now, the b-t-s season will be viable. "I think there will always be somewhat of a b-t-s mentality. Especially with the younger kid, since the parent's really involved with getting your child acclimated and knowing what he or she needs," Thompson said.

While teens may start school with just some basics, once they see what their friends are wearing, there will be a surge in spending. "There is a business there; kids do need some new clothes before they go back to school. Maybe they're more seasonless and buy-now, wear-now, but there are clothes that they'll buy before going back," Bradley-Riley said.

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