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NEW YORK — While she may not know the street names on the way to the strip mall or even know how to parallel park the car once she gets there, the junior girl knows how to shop — and mass retailers such as Target, Wal-Mart and Sears are more than happy to be her shopping buddy.
Through creative marketing approaches, junior retailers attempt to win a place in the hearts of teenage girls — and something out of their parents’ wallets — by sponsoring concerts, staging in-store events and holding sweepstakes. When less-expensive stores like Target and Old Navy reduced the negative stigma associated with shopping discount in recent years — largely through promotions and ad campaigns — they paved the way for mass retailers to join the junior game. Though they had little experience marketing to finicky teenage girls, mass retailers found themselves with an advantage in two arenas: price and access — since not all girls live near a mall nor shop at one weekly.
Oftentimes a mass retailer’s partnership with an authoritative fashion brand or teen idol becomes a winning combination — if not a necessity — to establish coolness in the eyes of teen girls.
Where offering the latest hip brands used to be a novelty for mass retailers, today it’s standard practice, according to Michael Wood, vice president of Northbrook, Ill.-based Teenage Research Unlimited, a market-research company. During the course of his research, Wood said he’s heard the term “Target run” used on several occasions, referring to that store’s ability to infiltrate the mysterious speech patterns of teenage girls — a stamp of approval in the highest form.
“If you’re going to succeed in this market, you’ve got to go above and beyond,” Wood said. “The mall is full of specialty apparel stores that are trying to grab their attention. Then you have the discounters and on top of that the department stores.”
Due to the intense competition at all retail price tiers, Wood said that relying on cool products, advertising and word of mouth alone is not enough. “You need added value,” he said.
Sponsoring a music festival or pop star is the first way stodgy executives think they can razzle-dazzle the teen set, but Wood said that type of no-brainer marketing is becoming too common.
“Get innovative,” Wood said. “It’s a bit of a simple approach to say ‘Teens like music, so let’s find an up-and-coming artist, sponsor their tour, and then teens will like us.’”
For Sears, brands such as Skechers, LEI and Mudd are top sellers, but it’s been Sears-sponsored concerts featuring Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child and Backstreet Boys that’s sent a clear message to teens that the store is a fun place to shop, according to a Sears spokeswoman.
A couple of recent Sears contests have put teens face-to-face with their celebrity idols. One Texas girl recently won a trip to join Aguilera on an hour-long midnight shopping spree at Sears after a concert.
Mossimo Inc. chairman Mossimo Giannulli may have been one of the forerunners of partnering with a mass retailer, but he believes product is still more important than celebrity tie-ins.
“It’s about the product and it has nothing to do with the marketing,” Giannulli said. “The product will keep them there and keep them coming back.”
Giannulli said he focuses on technical details, like wash and silhouette in jeans, which are important factors for teens, and lets Target come up with the ad campaigns and creative marketing.
“On a mass level, you have to be successful to a lot of people and you want to remain cool, so there’s a fine line you dance,” Giannulli said. “[The clothes] have to be relevant, on trend and of great quality. If you skimp in those areas, the kids know and you lose them.”
However, not all mass retailers or department stores have their own exclusive label like Mossimo, so both types have to work harder to persuade girls to shop.
J.C. Penney Co. tries to use creative marketing to attract shoppers, according to Mark McDevitt, vice president and general merchandising manager for junior sportswear.
“What’s going to separate you from the pack?” McDevitt asked rhetorically. “Having the right merchandise and right prices are most important, but any more exposure you can get might make them come back to your store over someone else.”
McDevitt acknowledged that junior specialty retailers, which have goods aimed at junior shoppers in their windows, make formidable competitors for stores with broader assortments. At Penney’s, he said, girls have to pass a lot of departments before reaching the junior section.
To remedy the problem, Penney’s holds events like Rock the Prom, where girls can enter a contest to win a package of prizes for the big day. One winner gets a dress, a makeover, limousine service, dinner reservations, a performance by an up-and-coming boy band at the dance and tickets to a later concert by that band.
Model searches around prom time to display the season’s current dresses and back-to-school promotions like “Diva for a Day” all are intended to entice teens to shop at the store.
With its monthly U.S. readership of 14.5 million people, Seventeen magazine joined forces with Wal-Mart to create an in-store video campaign called “Trend Alert.” The two companies are now making their third video together.
The videos, which are 12 minutes in length, are repeated constantly on in-store monitors and highlight clothes available at Wal-Mart in fashion-forward looks. The program also includes music recorded on Sony’s labels.
“It’s about reach and extending our relationship and our ability to drive them to the retail store based around an advertising marketing package,” said Linda Platzner, president and group publisher of Primedia Teen Properties, which publishes Seventeen, noting that the entire program was thought up by Seventeen’s in-house marketing department.For Teenage Research’s Wood, in-store events, sponsorships and promotions are positive steps a store can take to win over teens. But he warns retailers to stay creative without getting carried away. He said retailers shouldn’t try too hard to be cool, since kids today are smart and sense when a store is posing.
“Are teenagers going to listen to Wal-Mart about fashion?” Wood asked rhetorically. “No, but they’ll listen to Seventeen because they have some authority and I think that’s a smart move. [Retailers] don’t have to have all the answers, sometimes they just have to work with those that do.””