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Teen clothiers aim to hook even younger shoppers

Aeropostale, Forever 21, American Eagle Outfitters and others hope to capture some of the multibillion-dollar preteen or 'tween' market, which has largely been the domain of mass merchandisers.

October 26, 2010|By Sandra Pedicini

Orlando, Fla. — — Clothing stores aimed at teenagers and twentysomethings are expanding their reach, trying to hook customers barely out of kindergarten with their own lines.

Teen retailer Aeropostale Inc. last year launched its first P.S. from Aeropostale for children ages 7 to 12. It has opened almost 40 of them and is expected to have 45 by year-end.

Aeropostale calls P.S. "a logical extension" of its brand. It hopes to capture some of the multibillion-dollar preteen or "tween" market, which has been largely the domain of mass merchandisers.

Other youth-oriented chains have also begun making tinier clothing. Forever 21 this year launched a new line, HTG81, for children 6 to 14, available in select stores.

Whereas Aeropostale clothes have a casual feel, HTG81 offers trendier styles, including shimmering dresses, T-shirts that say "I love shopping" and berets.

American Eagle Outfitters Inc. has even reached toward the toddler set with its 77kids line for children 2 to 10. American Eagle launched 77kids in 2008 online and has a few stores open, mostly in the Northeast.

Branding experts say that as youngsters get more sophisticated, it makes sense that growth-hungry retail companies would target them.

"Little kids are so status-conscious about clothing now, more than ever," said Eli Portnoy, a branding strategist based here. "It was a natural evolution for young college, teenage brands: 'Why not go after them younger and get them hooked into our brands?' "

Nationwide, $13.4 billion was spent on teen clothing over the last year, according to market-research firm NPD Group.

"These larger companies … realize it's predominantly an untapped market," said Maria Bailey, who runs a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., marketing firm focusing on mothers.

But it's a market that's been primed to shop, Bailey said.

"They've been dressing their penguins on Club Penguin or their Webkinz online," she said. "You put them in a shopping mall, they've got that behavior of 'I love to shop.'"

Reaching out to the elementary and middle school market has its pitfalls, however.

For one thing, Portnoy said, designers have to make sure they don't alienate their original customers, who might not "like the idea that their younger siblings are wearing the same branded goods."

Aeropostale's clothes for young children, for example, mimic the original brand's casual style, but many pieces distinguish themselves by displaying a P.S. logo.

And the products will have to be priced right. Abercrombie & Fitch Co.'s children's stores, which have been around for years and feature higher-end clothes that the company resisted discounting through much of the economic downturn, have suffered sales declines. Abercrombie Kids generated $343.1 million in sales in 2009, down from $471 million in 2007.

Abercrombie had more success during the middle of the decade, when its children's sales grew by double digits — far ahead of a 5% growth rate in general children's apparel, according to Trefis, a stock-analysis website. Hurt by the economic downturn, the children's clothing market should start growing again, Trefis predicts.

The economy has been kinder to more economically priced lines such as Forever 21, Bailey said. "The kids know that their dollar will go further there."

In general, Bailey said, more traditional children's retailers such as Children's Place Retail Stores Inc. and Gymboree Corp. will have to adapt if they want to keep their pint-size customers as they grow.

"I think they're probably going to lose customers at a younger age," she said. "If they don't stay up with or change or somehow appeal to the 6- to 8-year olds, they're going to lose them. They're going to be viewed as baby clothes."

Pedicini writes for the Orlando Sentinel/McClatchy.

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