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Drool Now, Spend Later

When Sacha Vega, left, and Liz Gipson shop, they often browse at high-priced stores but don't buy anything, spending at stores more in their price range.
When Sacha Vega, left, and Liz Gipson shop, they often browse at high-priced stores but don't buy anything, spending at stores more in their price range. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2007

Liz Gipson and Sacha Vega, both 15-year-old sophomores at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, come to Tysons Corner Center ready to visit two kinds of stores: the ones they browse in and the ones they buy from.

And they'll be equally welcome in both. Because for many retailers, a dressing room filled with teenage girls who don't buy anything isn't a problem -- it's an investment in future customers.

"We'll go there to try on stuff we can't afford," Sacha says. "Then we'll feel bad because the salespeople will be really nice to us.''

That's the case at Free People, where the pair try on dresses -- Liz's priced at $70, Sacha's at $122; both cute, but way above their self-imposed price ceiling of about $30.

"Maybe I'll go back when it's on clearance,'' Sacha says.

Then they head for Urban Outfitters. This store is so definitely in the "buy" category that Liz says "you're almost guaranteed that five other girls at your school will be wearing the same thing."

Sacha tries on a top but concludes it isn't quite her. Both girls examine the Havaiana flip flops. After spending some serious time in the store, Liz pays $60 for a meltingly soft, cream-colored hobo bag. She immediately rips off the tags, stuffs her old handbag into it, and the girls move on.

They're off to browse at Cusp, a Neiman Marcus spin-off with a hip, boutique vibe. "I love the look, but I can't afford it,'' Liz says.

Shopping tip from Liz and Sacha: It's good to alternate between browse and buy. Too many browse stores can get depressing.

Retailing reality from Jie Zhang: The stores don't mind teenage browsers because they want "to build loyalty in the early years," said Zhang, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "If a retailer can make an impact on them at this stage, it's likely to pay off in later life."

Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a marketing research firm, agreed. "The browsing component is the first sign of interest and emotional connection; it's a sign of potential," she said, adding that there can be an immediate benefit for the retailer. "Kids really do influence where parents shop. The teenager can work both ways. . . . They bring their own money, and they bring their parents' money.''

Over at Cusp, Liz and Sacha are so far out of their price range that they get a little wacky. Sacha tries on a short white shift covered in giant white sequins. It's silly, she says, but fun and surprisingly comfortable.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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