Drool Now, Spend Later

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.

Liz tries on the Marc Jacobs designs she loves for their funky-but-feminine detailing.

"It's that you just like to look at the clothes, even if you might not be able to have them for awhile,'' she says. "It's fun to wish.''

Sacha concurs. It's her first trip to Cusp. "When I walked in, I was a little intimidated.'' But, she said, the sales staff was very friendly.

Among the teens shopping in our project that day, only nine said they'd bought anything in the past six months from Coach, the high-priced leather retailer. But that doesn't mean they don't like to handle the goods. On the shopping survey, Coach ranked as one of the most-loved stores.

Zhang observed that teens won't think something is better just because it costs more. "There are expensive stores that teenagers don't care about," she said. "To get them, it has to be relevant to them -- something that fits into their lifestyle and their way of wanting to express themselves.''

High-end stores interested in courting younger buyers might lure them by introducing items near their price range, Zhang said. But the store must maintain its status, she said, and cited the experience of Tiffany & Co.

In the 1990s, Tiffany had great success attracting younger customers by introducing a line of silver jewelry more reasonably priced than its traditional offerings. But the line became so popular that the retailer grew concerned -- it didn't want too many kids walking around in Tiffany jewelry. The company phased in different lines at higher prices, Zhang said, in an effort to retrieve its image.

Back in Tysons Corner, Liz and Sacha are in Nordstrom -- which, being a department store, is able to fit into both the browse and buy categories. The affordable Brass Plum department with its $22 T-shirts is right next to t.b.d., where jeans can go for $100-plus. It's a smart layout if the goal is attracting younger buyers and getting them interested in the higher-priced lines. The girls, aware of the difference, toggle seamlessly between the two sections.

In t.b.d., Liz plucks a floral '60s-inspired dress from French Connection off a rack and disappears into the dressing room. She loves the style but knows going in that the three-figure price tag makes buying it unlikely. Sacha selects a few items from both departments before joining Liz.

They emerge empty-handed but content. And likely to come back.

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