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Stores Can Dance All Night on Prom Profits

The average 17-year-old spends $638 on dresses, beauty salons, limousines and other goods for the special event.

May 25, 2003|Alexandra Polier | Associated Press Writer

WESTPORT, Conn. — Raquel Lucas is spending a small fortune on her senior prom.

Her dress cost $250, her shoes were $100 and there was $60 for a bottle of Christian Dior's J'adore, her favorite perfume. A trip to the beauty salon is $70, the limo is $50 a person, and it will cost $90 to get in the door.

Lucas, 18, who attends Staples High School in Westport, expects to pay more than $700 by the time the evening is over.

"We're going all out this year because it's our last prom," said Lucas, who got a part-time job to help pay for the event.

Proms are a huge business, estimated to bring in $2.7 billion in revenue for purveyors of dresses, shoes, lingerie, cameras, film, beauty supplies and salon services. Teens also rent limousines and hotel rooms, and plan after-prom parties requiring beach gear and swimsuits.

Almost 20 million students will attend proms this year, with the average 17-year-old spending $638, or more than $1,200 per couple, according to research by Conde Nast, which publishes Modern Bride, Vogue, Teen Vogue and other magazines.

"It's definitely become a reliable, growing industry," said Wendy Liebmann, a retail analyst at WSL Strategic Retail. "And right now, it's booming."

Retailers are pouring millions of dollars into prom advertising. Magazines such as Your Prom, Seventeen magazine's prom issue, and YM magazine's special prom book attract millions of readers.

"The prom is recession-proof," said Antonia van der Meer, editor-in-chief of Your Prom, which is published every January. "Even with the war on terror and the war in Iraq, people go to the prom. It's a feel-good event, and right now people need to feel good."

"It's totally worth it," said Lucas, who is still making final plans before the June 6 event. "How can you put a price tag on a lifetime of memories?"

The industry has grown significantly in the last five years in importance, the size of the market and the emphasis teens put on it, van der Meer said.

"It doesn't surprise me one bit that they spend so much money," said Cindy Freeburn, director of communications for Alfred Angelo, a leading prom and bridal dress maker. "The disposable income these kids have access to is mind-boggling."

Your Prom says that of its 5.2 million readers, 55% have part-time jobs, earning them an average income of $4,651 a year. Overall, teens spent $172 billion in 2001, with nearly half going toward clothing, jewelry and beauty products, according to Conde Nast research.

At prom time, many teens want to splurge, particularly on dresses.

So companies like Alfred Angelo are able to charge $250 to $350 per prom dress at retail, and designers like Jessica McClintock can charge even more.

"Budget restrictions just aren't a concern for prom consumers like they are at other times of the year," Liebmann said.

But van der Meer, Your Prom editor, said many teens do get a life lesson from shopping for their proms.

"They learn -- in this microworld of prom -- what things cost and how to budget," she said. "Whether you have a prom girl who has a lot of money to spend or a little, they're going to have to budget."

Department stores are often a destination when teens shop for dresses, but small businesses are also beneficiaries. Teens spend $416 million a year for limousines and $172 million on flowers, Conde Nast found.

Robert Rivera of Continental Limo service in Westport said he makes about $40,000, or about 15% of his annual sales, during the prom season, which runs from late April through June. This year, his fleet of cars is already booked for every weekend and most weekdays for proms.

"Every limo company looks forward to prom," he said.

"We're relying on it this year. The recession has hit everyone around here. Companies are downsizing and laying off drivers. It helps us catch up on things."

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