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Retailing’s Sweet Spot: Stores Look to Lure Millennial Generation

Move over, Boomers. The Millennials are staking their claim on the fashion and retail landscape. Numbering 64 million nationwide...

Move over, Boomers. The Millennials are staking their claim on the fashion and retail landscape.

Numbering 64 million nationwide, savvy and hard-to-please consumers between the ages of 14 and 29 have buying power. They are eager to try what’s new and trendy, and though price-conscious, they covet status brands and are hooked on technology.

As the struggles of the U.S. economy worsen, retailers and fashion brands — with California-based companies such as American Apparel helping to lead the way — are focused more than ever on the Millennials.

The poster girl for the group is Miley Cyrus, the 15-year-old star of the Disney Channel’s hit series “Hannah Montana.” The character she portrays has spawned an empire estimated to reach $1 billion this year through sales of everything from $6 shampoo to $29.50 jeans embellished with antique copper studs.

Females between the ages of 13 and 24 spent $33.7 billion on clothing in the 12 months through April, according to The NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm. That compares with $16.9 billion purchased by 25- to 34-year-old women, including some older members of the Millennials, and $29.8 billion by Baby Boomers between the ages of 45 and 64.

The standards for defining this demographic vary. Different analysts describe Millennials as people born between 1979 and 1999, 1980 and 2000 or 1980 to 1995, but research firms such as Intelligence Group narrow the age range to between 14 and 29 so that they can accurately gauge the consumers’ defining characteristics.

As the Millennials, sometimes dubbed Gen-Y, flex their purchasing muscle, companies are changing time-tested ways of manufacturing and marketing clothing.

“This is the generation that is rethinking everything,” said Debra Stevenson, who tracks fashion and retail at her consulting firm Skyline Studios in Los Angeles. “Fast-moving trends are key because they are changing their minds quickly about things. They have a voracious interest in discovery and newness. Tried and true is not the way.”

Fast-fashion firms like Forever 21, Hennes & Mauritz and Zara get it. But more conventional merchants and brands, including Hot Topic and Old Navy, appeared to be slower to absorb the message.

That message is epitomized by Cyrus, who made her debut at No. 35 this year on Forbes magazine’s Celebrity 100 list, which ranks stars based on their annual salary and appearances in the media. She was ahead of Gwyneth Paltrow (No. 67), who matches Cyrus’ yearly pay of $25 million. With her rising profile, it makes sense for Cyrus to aim for the higher stratum in design. Valentino and Roberto Cavalli are her labels of choice for the red carpet.

Cyrus follows the lead of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Hilary Duff, multitasking Millennials who didn’t appear on the Celebrity 100 list this year. The 22-year-old Olsens, who started their careers at nine months old on the TV series “Full House,” head a business that encompasses tween line mary-kateandashley, contemporary label Elizabeth & James and high-end brand The Row. Duff, 20, who got her start as Cyrus did on the Disney Channel, continues to resonate with the tweens she caters to in her lifestyle brand, stuff by hilary duff.

Cyrus’ popularity with girls convinced jewelry designer Fati Parsia to loan the star baubles for the CMT Music Awards in April. Los Angeles-based Parsia said her line Spiriteux’s $1,725 chain necklace dotted with black cultured pearls and $520 gold stallion head earrings weren’t too outlandish for a teen. After photos of Cyrus in Spiriteux’s finery ran on people.com and other media outlets, sales jumped 35 percent, she said.

The value of the Hannah Montana franchise was crystallized when the young star apologized to her fans after appearing in racy photos by Annie Leibovitz in the June issue of Vanity Fair.

The Millennials are compelling established brands to adjust. Warner Bros., which is home to iconic characters such as Wonder Woman, Bugs Bunny and Superman, acknowledged that, unlike previous generations, the Millennials didn’t grow up watching its cartoons on TV. That’s why the Burbank, Calif.-based movie studio said it must hone its strategy for licensing and merchandising through collaborations with retailers and designers popular with young women.

“It’s very important to have the legitimacy and credibility when you’re presenting to this audience,” said Barry Ziehl, a senior vice president at Warner Bros.’ consumer products division.

Among Warner Bros.’ efforts: teaming up with celebrity-centric boutique Intuition to sell apparel and accessories emblazoned with the Supergirl S-shield, convincing Diane von Furstenberg to design a capsule collection that is inspired by Wonder Woman for the coming holiday season and jumping into action sports with S3 Supergirl Jam, an annual Southern California festival highlighting female athletes who careen on waves, asphalt and snow.

Labels in the contemporary and premium denim categories are equally eager to cater to Millennials. With retail prices starting at $169, Paige Premium Denim sells one third of its jeans to customers under the age of 19. “They are fun trendsetters,” said Paige Adams-Geller, founder of Paige Premium Denim in Culver City, Calif.

The Millennials form a huge part of the customer base for Los Angeles-based American Apparel. To learn more about their preferences, American Apparel began allowing shoppers to write reviews of products on its Web site.

Marsha Brady, who oversees creative direction and business strategy at American Apparel, said it was “so logical” to ask customers for their opinions on products.

“This Millennial customer, our customer, wants to tell us what they’re thinking about everything,” she said. “They’re into self-expression and it’s important….It’s more than just business. It’s something that is being felt.”

How does a company get a Millennial’s business?

As Megan Foley, a 27-year-old marketing coordinator for an architecture and design firm in New York, suggested: “I actually don’t like it when someone is too up in my face….I like them to know what they have in stock and not give me attitude when I’m asking for help.”

The varied needs of Millennials create “a nightmare for retailers,” said Jane Buckingham, president of the Intelligence Group, a Los Angeles-based marketing and research group owned by the Creative Artists Agency.

Buckingham noted that retailers often reward Millennials with perks such as free concerts to entice them to shop. In an uncertain economy, however, businesses can’t blow big bucks on weekly shows. Nevertheless, they can continue to lure the Millennials with small tokens such as a free song download or the option to give a digital cupcake to a friend on the social networking site Facebook.

Hot Topic has realized that the way to Millennials’ wallets is through their ears. After appointing music industry veteran John Kirkpatrick as its chief music officer last year, the chain revamped its Web site to let customers discover new music via song snippets and band-related merchandise.

“They get it if you say, ‘We can’t afford this. This is the best we can do,'” Buckingham said. “You have to show them what you’re doing for them.”

Millennials like a good deal. At BB Dakota, a young contemporary brand based in Irvine, Calif., the strategy is to try to look upscale because the Millennials take their cues from the runways, celebrities and magazines. For instance, BB Dakota has upgraded from polyester to silk for frocks retailing for $130. The company also noticed that the Millennials have a cavalier attitude toward basics. In BB Dakota’s fall lineup, the top-selling color for winter coats was a bright orange. “People are trying to be individuals,” said BB Dakota president Gloria Brandes. “There are kids who don’t have a lot of money but expect to look as if they do.”

The Millennials also aspire to look as if they stepped off the set of “Gossip Girl,” the hit series about New York’s Upper East Side adolescents with adult-size sins and pocketbooks. Fashion brands are jockeying to get on the show. Eighties-era Jordache Jeans boasted a coup of being featured on “Gossip Girl” at least twice. Multiple appearances on “Gossip Girl” paid off for Foley + Corinna. Socialite-turned-actress Lydia Hearst swung a $528 Jet Setter Jr. tote in white leather on her arm while flirting with Ed Westwick’s character, and Taylor Momsen’s character sat demurely on steps with the $444 City Clutch in an opalescent fuchsia by her fishnet stocking-clad feet.

As a result, Shopbop.com sold out of the City Clutch. The New York-based fashion brand also tallied an estimated $15,000 in sales at a recent trunk show in Short Hills, N.J., where the hostess’ 17-year-old daughter “kept asking for the purses that were on the show,” said Jana Gold, Foley + Corinna’s director of marketing and publicity. “We really lucked out.”

The Millennials are forcing companies to reexamine their strategies.

“You can’t just slap logos on T-shirts,” said Justin Watson, marketing manager at Los Angeles’ Mighty Fine Inc., which produces apparel for entertainment brands like Walt Disney Co. Instead, Mighty Fine starts developing a line by identifying the fashion trend before deciding which character would best suit the theme. “We need to keep being innovative,” Watson said.

The Millennials’ love for quick-turning trends compelled Miss Chievous, a Los Angeles-based company that specializes in tops for 15- to 18-year-olds, to shorten its production schedule so it can deliver goods faster to retailers such as Nordstrom, Macy’s, Dillard’s and J.C. Penney. Miss Chievous said it goes into production 50 to 70 days before making a delivery, in comparison with previous years when the schedule ran 60 to 90 days. It also ships products to the U.S. from factories in Asia by air, narrowing its profit margins.

“It’s extremely tough,” said Miss Chievous president Chance Owen. “[The Millennial’s] causing us to be a lot more aggressive and take gambles on trends. Don’t get me wrong. We like her. We’re also trying to figure her out.”