Not too many corporate executives read Seventeen and Young Miss magazines, but Mark D. Rexroat devours every issue. He watches a lot of music videos on MTV, too. And every winter, he crisscrosses the country checking out such places as Venice Beach, where he combs funky gift shops for clues to "what the teen-age fashion trends will be a year from now."
The colors and characters that Rexroat discovers find their way onto the covers of thousands of notebooks, binders and portfolios that America's youngsters are lugging to school this fall. His efforts may seem extraordinary, but to his employer, Mead Corp., and retailers across America, big bucks are at stake.
Every fall, parents and children spend about $750 million on school supplies, and billions more on clothes, shoes, sweaters, backpacks, pocket calculators and, of course, those essential extras: sweatbands, barrettes, charm necklaces and cassettes.
This ritual may seem as ever-present as school itself. But for the past 14 years, the number of children attending school in the United States has been dropping steadily. As a result, retailers have had to compete fiercely for shares of a shrinking pie. Even notebooks have to be trendy.
But this fall, the number of elementary schoolchildren is edging upward slightly, and this trend is expected to continue through the 1990s. For instance, when school starts today in the Los Angeles Unified School District, there will be an estimated 15,000 more students than last year--the largest increase in enrollment since 1964.
The nation's department stores and discount retailers reported last week that sales were up 6.7% in August compared to the year before, and they pronounced the back-to-school buying spree off to a good start. At the same time, some manufacturers say the new school enrollment figures are making them pay increased attention to the children's market. For the nation's retailers, it seems that back-to-school may be increasingly back-in-style.
One company looking more seriously at the children's market is Lee Jeans, the nation's No. 2 maker of denim slacks. Lee sells 40% of its jeans during the back-to-school season, mostly to teen-agers. But Lee President Malcolm Winne said the company is now exploring ways to focus on the children's wear. "We can't ignore the demographic trends," he said.
Some companies that have devoted more resources and imagination to children's wear appear to have achieved success. Nike, a maker of athletic shoes, said sales of children's sneakers jumped 22% last year. This back-to-school season the company is promoting sneakers with night reflector strips through guest appearances of a costumed Reflecto-Man at shoe stores. And at Oshkosh B'Gosh, sales of fashionable children's clothing have overtaken sales of men's work overalls, the company's original product.
At K mart, executive Robert D. Moore, who oversees boys' clothing departments, said sales of boys' clothing stagnated until the chain put traditional flannel shirts on the back shelves and featured colorful, oversized sweat shirts instead. Moore said by the time they turn 9, even boys "have very definite ideas about what they want to wear. If mother doesn't buy the garment the boy wants, it's going to end up not being worn."
The new focus on children has not diminished the attention lavished on the nation's teen-agers who--industry analysts say--spend nearly every dollar they get their hands on. A 1986 survey by the Rand Youth Poll shows that teen-agers are enthusiastic consumers. According to the survey, teen-agers receive about $30.7 billion a year in wages and allowance from parents, and spend $25.7 billion.
Much of that money is spent at this time of the year as merchants beckon the young shoppers with opulent displays, splashy advertising and even parties at Disneyland. According to Seventeen magazine, girls between age 13 and 19 spend $8.7 billion on back-to-school clothes, shoes, notebooks, calculators and other items. That comes to $1,023 for each girl.
Esprit is one of those companies cashing in on teen-age buying. The trendy clothier mailed about 1.2 million colorful brochures to teen-agers this fall, including 100,000 to California teen-agers. "We find that kids have a definite say on what they want to wear; a much clearer view on what they want than their parents do," executive Bonnie Pyle said.
"When I was a kid, my mother took me shopping for school clothes, but that's not what happens in today's world," said Halle Redman, the buyer for junior clothing at the Broadway, a department that features in-store videos and pulsating rock music for the back-to-school season. "Most kids today go shopping on their own and buy what they like. So we direct our marketing at the consumer."