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'Tweens: From Dolls to Thongs

Marketers dangle glittery goods to lure preteen girls with spending power. But some adults say it's too much, too soon.

June 27, 2002|LESLIE EARNEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the store mannequins wears a fringed denim skirt riding low on the hips and a top pushed high on the midriff. Another has shorts that roll down on the tummy and a one-shoulder top.

The music here is loud, throbbing. But it can't drown out the giggles of shoppers.

Yes, giggles.

Welcome to the abercrombie in Costa Mesa, a store for kids ages 7 to 14.

Known as 'tweens in the marketing world, youngsters in this age group are spending like never before, $90 billion a year, by one estimate. And they are doing it with new freedom, as their busy, dual-income parents are more likely to indulge their whims. Girls in particular have grabbed retailers' attention with their desire for trendier clothes.

Gone are the days when Mom lugged home dungarees and T-shirts for her 9-year-old daughter's school year. Today's 'tweens make for picky, fickle shoppers with a keen awareness of what's hot and a hankering to look more grown-up than they are. At the same time, their tender age makes them vulnerable to advertising.

It's an ideal combination for manufacturers and retailers, who have helped fuel the buying craze with faux leather pants and flirty tops. A line of pedicure products beckons to this age group. Marketers even host slumber parties to find out how to make a 'tween spend.

The trend raises the anxiety level of many parents and consumer advocates, who say that girls barely past Beanie Babies are being pushed too quickly toward mascara and navel rings.

The debate heated up recently with Abercrombie & Fitch's sales of thong underwear to young girls at its abercrombie stores.

"I think it's appalling, sexualizing these girls at 9 and 10," said John Jones, a 59-year-old college instructor, who accompanied his wife and niece on a recent shopping trip for the girl's 10th birthday. He stood by grumbling at the Girl Mania store in Newport Beach, watching as a group of girls awkwardly imitated a hip-gyrating dance routine and his niece had her hair twisted up and glittery makeup applied.

"This will come back to haunt the kids and their parents," Jones said. "You can't sexualize the kids and then take it away."

Companies reach out to 'tweens with bright colors, videos, flashing lights and pulsing music. Some stores have gum-ball machines and photo-sticker booths, others lighted vanity tables where girls can admire freshly applied makeup. Glitter is everywhere--on denim skirts, in lavender eye shadow.

In one of the many indicators that these are kids in transition, a dressing room at the Limited Too store in Costa Mesa outlines a three-step process for choosing the correct size bra.

In fact, children haven't changed that much over the years, academics and market analysts say. But the world around them has.

More families have two working parents and more discretionary income. And with families under increasing stress, experts say, parents have a greater need to believe their children are competent and able to make their own decisions.

"There have never been so many influences on them, whether it's MTV or the Internet or wealthier parents willing to spoil these kids," said Brian Tunick, an analyst with J.P. Morgan Chase, an investment banking firm in New York. "With both parents working now, this is a way for them to show love to their kids. That's what has changed."

'Tweens--so named for their status between early childhood and the teenage years--are not developed enough psychologically to know how to be skeptical about advertising, said Elizabeth Moore, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame.

"Children have televisions in their rooms, phones, computers," Moore said. "From a marketer's point of view, the range of products these children are consuming is expanding. And there's a lot of evidence that they have a lot of influence over what their parents buy."

The advertising directed at this age group encourages them to want to be like teenagers, with the emphasis on being cool. High-voltage and often skimpily clad entertainers such as Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez have become idols to many young girls.

At the same time, many parents now leave apparel decisions to their children.

"I don't dare bring anything home anymore," said Becky Yager of Huntington Beach, who shopped recently with her 10-year-old daughter. "I have to let her see it first."

This early sophistication, particularly among girls, has given rise to an array of products, from electronics to wigs to bedroom furnishings.

"Companies recognize its huge market potential," said Steven Richter, an analyst with Wellington Management, an investment banking firm in Boston.

A huge market, but not easy to capture. The pint-sized consumer is as easily bored as a full-blown teenager, and her attention span is even shorter.

"New, new, new. It's all about newness," said Dana Siegel, who handles marketing and product development for Hotsie Totsie, a 'tween-driven division of Worldwide Cosmetics in Los Angeles. "One second they like it, the next second they don't."

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