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VIEWPOINTS : Retailers Miss the Market With Teen-Agers : Too Often, Merchants Treat Young Shoppers Like Pariahs

December 20, 1987|RALPH SHAFFER | RALPH SHAFFER is a former merchandising executive writing from San Francisco

Many retailers look but they don't listen.

They look at printouts--usually every day--on inventories, purchases, markdowns, payroll, advertising and bank statements. And they look at their merchandise, daily and weekly, to see that it is well-displayed, in full stock, with effective signs. They look at their internal operations too--to check for good lighting, cleanliness, uncluttered aisles and employees who are presentable to the public.

But, for a long time, teen-agers have been trying to tell them something. Teen-agers try to say it best and clearest at the year-end holiday season when they set out to buy presents for their parents, friends and relatives.

Retail merchants I tell this to (like my former colleagues) say to me: "What are you talking about? We hear them. We've been listening. Why, we've catered more this year to the teen market than ever before. Look at our all-media ads--cute models, just the right ages. Look at our new boutiques, with the very hottest teen styles. Look at our displays--rock star backgrounds, spiked-hair mannequins and all that flashing neon. Where have you been, Dad?"

Then I try to explain to them.

I don't mean that retailers haven't targeted the lucrative teen market. They have: with apparel, consumer electronics, sports equipment, cars and bikes. But today's retailers ought to pay more attention when it comes to the holiday buying done by teens for others .

"Oh, that," my former colleagues say, maybe really not listening. Perhaps they don't stop to think that the under-18s at holiday time will be buying mom some lingerie or dad a nice chamois-cloth shirt or Don (the friend) a real leather jacket. I think retailers don't want to highlight this kind of teen-age buying because of old prejudices:

- "They don't have that kind of money." Oh? At age 14, many now get work permits. With their earnings (sometimes from two jobs at once), they are filling their own bank accounts with discretionary income to spend on what they want--not on what the family decrees. Many establish savings goals with their allowances. At 18, many can have their own credit cards at department stores. And many teen-agers can pay for purchases with authorized auxiliary credit cards allowing charges to be tallied on the family account.

- "You can draw an awful lot of Christmastime shoplifters in that age bracket, you know." I wonder. I've seen these shoppers in retail stores at many holidays buying in unfamiliar departments. (What sleeve length does dad take? Should I get mom something with spaghetti straps? Maybe the stand-up collar isn't the latest thing for Don's leather jacket.) Some, of course, may be shoplifters. But I doubt that the majority are. In fact, this bothered me so much that I went to the Uniform Crime Report's most recent annual figures. Shoplifting is listed under larceny-theft, and it represents 15% of that whole category. Larceny-theft broken down by age groups showed that the under-18s account for 0.32% of the total category, and the under-15s, 0.13%.

- "They waste our time, they're so indecisive--have you ever watched them trying to buy something in groups of three or four?" Sure I have. And I know that's just the time when they may need sales-floor advice, courtesy and attention--maybe more so than adults.

And I am not the only one who thinks so.

Here are excerpts of a letter published last year in The Times:

"Since I am a teen-ager (15 to be exact) and am allowed to go shopping by myself, I find that employees of large department stores often treat teen-agers differently when they come in alone. . . . I have seen employees treat other adult customers with courtesy, respect and solicitude. We are usually handled with surveillance, abruptness or inattention. Many clerks watch us go through the merchandise but will not approach us to offer assistance. . . . Another attitude displayed by salespeople is to ignore us as if they were wanting for us to go away. . . . This makes me feel helpless and that my business is unwanted. Since many of the people who shop today are teen-agers, we should be treated with the same respect and consideration given adults. After all, isn't our money just as valuable . . . ?"

So, for my former colleagues in retailing, I've got some suggestions for the last few days before Christmas: 1) Set up "Youth Booths" around the store where teen-agers can go for shopping help. 2) Produce handouts for them highlighting store specials suitable for family gifts. 3) Insist on courteous service, particularly for teen-age shoppers.

Do all that, and you will have a new group of loyal customers.

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