Editor's note: Amy Henry is vice president, youth insights, of C+R Research, Chicago. She can be reached at amyh@crresearch.com. This article appeared in the February 13, 2012, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter. 

Any '80s teen movie worth the price of admission featured the requisite scene with a pack of popular girls cruising the mall and a montage of different outfits being tried on. In the late '90s, many marketers focused on letting teens indulge in little (or sometimes big) luxuries, marketing higher-end fashion at a demographic that seemed well-suited for spending. And in the last few decades, retailers have catered to teen shoppers through actual and virtual shopping experiences, attempting to speak directly to them. But what's the state of shopping among today's teens? And what should future-focused marketers and retailers consider as they innovate and optimize their offerings?


To answer these questions, C+R Research called on multiple research methods to ensure that our analysis was informed by the nuanced notions and telling voices of teens. In 2011, in partnership with Revelations, our team conducted a digital shopping immersion, in which we accompanied 30 smartphone-armed teens while they shopped to see what they bought, what they considered and what made a particular retailer the right choice for the item. We also pulled data from YouthBeat, C+R's ongoing syndicated study, which allowed us to validate our findings across a nationally-representative online sample. Finally, we tapped into YouthBeat's virtual panel of U.S. families to gain additional documentary footage of teens' favorite sites for shopping, their prized purchases and their ideal retail experiences.


Here's what we found. 


Today's teens spend but don't splurge. YouthBeat estimates teens' collective net worth at just over $8 billion - so it's no surprise that this group spends! In the first six months of 2011, teen boys reported having more money in their pockets than teen girls and much more in the bank ($913 vs. $665). But economic concerns have not escaped their radar. In fact, the issues that teens expressed most concern over in 2011 (and in 2009 and 2010) were the economy and unemployment. It makes sense that this cohort has grown up with more sensitivity toward sales and discounts and more common sense when it comes to how they spend. When we asked their parents how the economy has affected their teens, we saw that teens continue to shop but are more cautious with their cash than in previous years, with 52 percent saying they look for sales (the highest of any of the options, including "shopping and spending less"). Our qualitative research has revealed that more and more teen girls are adopting vintage style and engaging in the thrift-shop cycle - buying used goods and bringing in their own for a credit. 


Shopping is more social than ever. For teens, buying has always been just one piece of the shopping puzzle. From mall crawls to vintage store scavenger hunts, teens have always approached shopping as a social scene. Today's teens continue to see shopping as social, noting that their friends influence their purchases more than most other sources. But today's teens have other ways to make shopping social. They can share potential picks via Facebook and text their friends for advice on what to try on. Their crowdsourcing mentality makes them the group most likely to tune in to "haul logs" - videos posted by shoppers that show off what they bought and what they paid for it. But one word of caution: Social networks play a more limited role in shopping than we might think, even among today's networked teens. They rarely Like brands and while they may look for deals on social networks, they're unlikely to put products ahead of gossip when prioritizing their online time. 


Online shopping helps teens browse, then buy. Many retailers measure the success of their e-commerce sites by the amount of items in the shopping cart. This might be a bad move if your customer is a 14-to-18-year-old! While our YouthBeat data shows that over half have shopped online in the past month, they're more likely to be browsing than buying. Between not having the means (i.e., an accessible credit card or gift card) and preferring the experiential aspects of shopping, teens are more likely to use retailer Web sites to comparison-shop and to pre-select items from their favorite stores. They also look for customer reviews to help sort through what really fits, what works and what's worth a dip into their savings. If they can find the right product, without spending a lot on shipping, they may be willing to ask mom or dad for their account number. But for the most part, retailers should focus on making Web sites fun and functional for teen browsing. As a bonus, build in sharing features that let them turn virtual window-shopping into a chance to spread the word to their friends. 


The ideal shopping experience entertains and informs. Teens love to visit stores to see what's new so if you're not offering them something new, they're less likely to stop by for a visit. Because shopping is often a form of entertainment for teens, retail environments need to be up to snuff. Provide well-stocked shelves that allow for a constant refreshing of inventory. Teens' ultimate shopping experiences let them touch and feel the merchandise without feeling like they're being watched. Walmart learned this lesson and began letting teens play games in store, making them a likely favorite among teens' lists of top shops. Finally, great shopping environments give teens a chance to participate, so providing low-cost items allows everyone to walk away with something when they're shopping en masse. And remember, non-retail brands can also get in on this game. Products with prominent and playful displays are likely to stand out among their competitive set within big-box and department stores.


Fast fashion and instant gratification trumps the need for luxury. From Forever 21 to Target, today's teens are willing to sacrifice a luxury brand for fashion they can afford. Cheaper fashion items not only get them in the game but make them feel less guilty when they're ready to update their looks (which even less trend-savvy teens do on a regular basis). In contrast to a few years ago when teens were carrying expensive purses and donning pricey athletic shoes, today's teens are willing to go a bit lower if it means making their money stretch further. This applies to technology as well. Teens sometimes get overwhelmed by too many features so make sure you make the shopping process simple. When teens feel smart, they extend that halo to your brand (i.e., if they feel smart, you look smart).


So what's a teen retailer to do? Here are five tips that could help your brand attract a piece of that $8 billion.  


  1. Give them options at a range of price points - and always help them feel like they got a great price.
  2. Focus on making the shopping experience social but only use social networks when it makes sense.
  3. Use Web sites as tools for research and also as ways to tempt teens into your store, where the sale will really happen.
  4. Put the goods in their hands. Let them touch and feel and make them comfortable when they're browsing.
  5. Provide items that don't require intense investment and in-store opportunities to experiment with their look and their style.

But above all, make sure your image of the teen shopper is up to date and not a matter of myth.