Teen Shopping Habits

Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2007; 12:00 PM

How savvy are teen shoppers? What are the small decisions, the information and inclinations at work as they shop? When do they stop and buy; when do they just move on?

The Washington Post wanted to find the answers to these questions, so they dispatched 61 volunteer shoppers, ages 12 to 17, on a local mall to find out.

Washington Post staff writer Ylan Q. Mui discussed teen shopping behavior on Monday, June 4 at Noon ET.

She was joined by retail expert Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst from the NPD Group, and Donna Hamaker, a spokesperson for Bloomingdale's at Tysons Corner Center and White Flint Mall.

A transcript follows.

View the complete report with video, photos and interactive profiles and maps by clicking here.


Ylan Q. Mui: Thank you everyone for being here today. We are looking forward to answering your questions!


Colleen Cordes, Takoma Park, Md.: If a university conducted such marketing research on children, this study, I'm pretty sure, would have had to be approved by the institutional board set up to protect the interests of human subjects of research, and it would have been subjected to intense scrutiny as to the potential harms and potential benefits it posed to the subjects because the subjects were children. (In fact, one would probably need to demonstrate how it would benefit the subjects.) Also, parents or guardians would have had to sign consent forms, before such a study could proceed. And the identity of individual participants, even then, would be protected. The Post makes no mention of seeking parental consent before interviewing, photographing, filming, and electronically monitoring the behavior of 61 children, and then quotes many by name, and identifies every child -- including those who aren't even teenagers yet -- by name, age, and city.

Many of us, on a shopping trip as 12-year-olds or as teenagers, probably said and did things that we would later judge as not in our own best interests to broadcast to the world at large. And as we adults know, material posted on the Internet cannot later be full deleted. My question to the panel: is it time to legislate and regulate that the Post or other news media who appear eager to gather marketing research on children to present to their potential advertisers in the guise of "news" be required to offer children the same protections that children would receive if the same marketing research was conducted by a university? Or --my own choice here -- is it time for the Post to stop treating children primarily as budding consumers coveted by businesses for the relative ease with which children can be parted from money? (The tipoff: no attention at all to issues of fair trade, environmental impacts, questions of race and class and income -- which a team of about 100 people at the Post apparently hasn't a clue are intricately connected with shopping.) Could the Post cover commercialism in childhood as the controversial social and political issue that it is rather than buy into it as merely an opportunity for a "cool" marketing package? Thank you for answering!

Ylan Q. Mui: Thanks for this important question. I wanted to answer this so that everyone is clear on how we conducted this project. First and foremost, every child who participated in this project (yes, all 61) was required to submit a signed consent form from their parents or guardians allowing us to interview, photograph, record and videotape them. We were very, very careful about this, and it is the first step we took.

Also, we did our best to get a diverse group of kids to participate in this project - geographically, racially, socioeconomically and just in terms of personality. I think we achieved that (with the exception that they were all girls but one!).

Finally, we did not intend for this to be a scientific study or even formal market research. We wanted this to be a snapshot, a look into the lives of teens and their consumer drives. We let the teens direct the focus of the project and simply reported on what we saw that day. And I think a lot of what we saw was surprising and insightful.


Bethesda, Md.: Marshal, did the findings of The Washington Post report mesh with national trends and statistics?

Marshal Cohen: very much so, but remember teens are fickle and they move quickly, but much of what we found in the results were true to the nature of teens today. These trends move in waves starting in one place and migrating at lightning speed these days


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Ylan,

This is Meera, Sneha Rao's mother. First of all thanks to all of you at The Post for such a wonderful project. We as parents also enjoyed this project. I have a few questions.

1. What did we learn from this project?

2. Do you think it's better for kids to shop with their parents or their friends?


Meera Rao

Ylan Q. Mui: Hello Meera! Thanks for being here.

I think we learned a lot -- that teens are price conscious, that they don't always like the skimpy clothes in stores and they are often task-oriented when shopping, among other things. But I think what struck me most was how different each student was. We tend to think of teenagers in cliques, but it was really nice to get to know them personally.

And it's up to you whether to go with your daughter or stay at home! We did find they tended to spend more when their parents were there!


Silver Spring, Md.: As a mother with a pretty good understanding of style, I find it hilarious that me and my child disagree on clothing choices. I wondered if other parents have the same disagreements with their kids. How much did you find that parents opinions influenced the children's purchase decisions?

Marshal Cohen: regarding kids and parents sharing fashion interesting shift is occuring and that is that many of the kids are influencing the parents purchases as more and more either share wardrobes when they can or even as fashion consultants. So don't feel alone, while some are sharing others are still finding that teens want one thing and many times too provocative but teens are teens and want to explore and experiment


Arlington, Va.: Were the 61 girls actually nearly all-white? Or is that just the way the photos were selected? The Post certainly did a good job of hiding the minority girls inside the section in black-and-white, and the photo spread on the website wasn't much different.

I have to wonder how welcoming these stores would have been if the groups of girls had been more heavily black or hispanic.

Ylan Q. Mui: Not at all! We had a very diverse mix of students. We had students who were African-American, Asian and Hispanic. We had kids who were Christian, Jewish and Muslim. They came from Fairfax, Prince George's County and the District. So I do think we were very well represented.

One thing I will note with the photos, however -- we were somewhat constrained because we only had permission to shoot photos inside certain stores at the mall. We had TONS of really good photos of some of the girls, but unfortunately we couldn't use them because they were taken inside unapproved stores. So there were logistical considerations as well. Trust me, some of those other photos were just beautiful.


Arlington, Va.: The teen market in D.C. must be even more valuable to retailers than the national average when you consider the level of affluence in the area. One of my daughter's friends is given a $200/week allowance for to use as she pleases. This is on top of her parents paying for all of her school clothes and other necessities. She has never had even a part-time job. It seems like there are more and more of these teen super-shoppers out there. Have you found this to be true?

Marshal Cohen: yes...there is no question that there are more teens today enjoying living a fruitful spending lifestyle thanks to their parents. In fact, many are given the opportunity to do so in hopes to keep the child closer. Remember the boomer was the original spoiled generation, and their offspring is even more so for some and less for others. There is an interesting dynamic at work, where some of the teens today are actually the first generation in a long time that are being raised on a budget while others are living a high spending lifestyle so that their parents can compete through their children.


Bethesda, Md.: From age 12, my mother would give me her credit card, I'd hop on the streetcar and head for F St. where I'd do my school clothes shopping. By the way, I'm fast approaching 64.

Next memory--shopping for a prom dress with my father. We avoided the usual places (Hechts, Woodies, etc.) and scoured Connecticut Avenue. Finally ended up back in Bethesda at Claire Dratch where they had the Cherry Blossom princess dresses for that year. Found a spectacular pink silk organza strapess with crystal-seeded bodice. $200!

A fortune in 1961 (probably 10 times that now), and we were not one of the many well-to-do families at B-CC. Daddy couldn't resist and I got a dress for a princess.


Donna Hamaker: Isn't it amazing that we remember certain shopping experiences from our youth? I know the girls who came to shop at Bloomingdale's had so much fun getting "dressed up" in some really beautiful dresses.


Reston, Va.: I remember going to the mall as a teen, albiet without my parents' credit cards. I am shocked at some of the responses to the article, however.

I think it might have been useful to show a little more infomation, such as how much of their own money those kids spent, and how much was their parents'. Also, it would have been nice to see some advice from Michele Singletary, to help those kids spend their money better. Are there any plans to follow up on this article?

Ylan Q. Mui: That's a really good point regarding how much of their own money vs. their parents money they spent. That would've been a good question to ask them in the exit interviews that we did with the students. We found it really was a mix of kids saving up their allowance (which one could argue is still really their parents' money) and shopping with the parents' credit card, or with the parents themselves.

We do plan to follow-up tomorrow with a story in the Health section looking at what happened to all the boys and the difference in guys vs. girls consumers.


Richmond, Va.: Loved this package of stories, especially the one about skimpy styles. I was a newspaper reporter and one summer I joined a group of rising eighth-grade girls on their fall shopping trip - they liked some of the clothes their moms wouldn't allow, but for the most part they were really smart about what kind of image the skimpy clothes convey, just like the girls you spoke with. It's encouraging.

Donna Hamaker: I agree.


Columbia, Md.: I don't know how you missed the boys - maybe they were out shopping! I have 3 sons, 2 of whom are teens and very active shoppers and extremely fashion concious - as are many of their male friends. My oldest son, now 18, drags his girlfriend shopping, relaxes by looking for shoes on ebay and celebrates every time GQ arrives with the latest fashion forecast and he's already got everything in the article.

I bought him an Armani suit for his 18th birthday per his request - which we got on sale at Nieman's Outlet. Saks Outlet and Value City are his other favs along with thrift stores and ebay. He buys all of his own clothing - often in NYC or South Beach, FL but rarely pays full price. He and his friends often shop together and hold clothing swaps

Marshal Cohen: boys are very much a part of this new found fashion teen. in fact they are partnering with girls when shopping and discovering fashion...while they don't necessarily go out of their way to show it, they are learning that fashion, style and even grooming have become their great differentiator beyond electronics, cell phones and video games as their predecessors.

Ylan Q. Mui: I did wonder if we had done this shopping trip to Best Buy if we would've had more guys sign up!


The article and lingerie: This is in regard to the article about teens--are they dressing more modestly?? I am a mid-thirties married woman with the same figure and weight I had in high school. I am sooooo glad to hear those girls eschewing lingerie and "sexy" bras and underwear. I can assure young women aged 15-25 that men do not care about that sort of thing.

How do I know?? I have heard from several guy friends, boyfriends and my own husband. Did I buy something special for my wedding nite?? Yes, I did. Do I have special, matching underwear sets for work? NO! Why would I waste the money for nice undies for a Wednesday in an office building???? It's Not Just Parents Saying No Skimpy Clothes

Donna Hamaker: I noticed that when the girls were choosing shorts to try on at Bloomingdale's that they were very aware of length. They made comments confirming that they didn't like them very short, but didn't want them too long, either. There was definitely a middle ground that they were looking for.

Ylan Q. Mui: First of all, kudos on keeping the same figure and weight that you had in high school! The girls we followed were very practical in their choices. I was surprised by how frank and aware they were of their own bodies and how they looked.


Port Monmouth, N.J. Fascinating article.

One thing that intriquged me was how prepared these shoppers were. Before stepping foot into the mall, they've already done their research online. These shoppers are smart.

With the rise in social media technology, how important is it going to become for retailers to interact with their customer via blogs and social networking websites (ie: Myspace or Facebook) in order to build an emotional connection with them before they step foot into the physical store? Are there any mall-based retailers who are currently doing this well?

Marshal Cohen: excellent question...teens today shop on line and do their homework, will go to the mall to touch and feel, try on or test drive, and still will likely go back home and purchase online much more so than their parents who shop mall first and online second to see if they overpaid. The sharper retailers for teens offer a full range of product and lifestyle information online to entertain, educate and elevate the teen while shopping and exploring on their sites. so the store becomes part of the equation, not the whole


Washington, D.C.: Historically, is there any difference in the shopping behavior by teens today compared to how they were a generation ago or even three generation agos?

Marshal Cohen: oh my yes, very different, expectations, needs, multi-dimensional product functions and even the speed to purchase are all part of the differences...but the biggest difference is that parents are part of the process more today than before and they have to learn to adjust. example shopping in Abercrombie for teens cool, for Mom or Dad, too loud, to crowded but must do it anyway. Look at how American Eagle lowers the music, brightens the lights and invites the parents to stay longer (remember they have the wallet most of the time)


Falls Church, Va.: It was only last week that the Post ran an article about the difficulties that a female high-school track star is having after an attractive picture of her in athletic clothing was splashed all over the Internet and developed a following of cyber-stalkers.

A week later, the Post decides that it's somehow newsworthy to run photographs of young, attractive teenage girls trying on clothes?! Did anyone connected with this article stop to think how irresponsible this might be? Were these girls' parents permitted to approve the photos used by the Post? Teen Tests Internet's Lewd Track Record (Post, May 29)

Ylan Q. Mui: As mentioned before, we did have signed consent forms from the parents/guardians of each of the teens who participated.

But I will say that I don't think that we should stop taking photos of teenagers or interviewing them just because there is the possibility of misuse of their images by third party. That's like calling for a ban of any people who might be considered hot from the pages of the Post simply on that fact alone! But we do realize there may be reasons -- social, religious or just preference -- that people would not want to participate in a project like this. That's why we sought permission from their parents.


Cupertino, Calif.: What is your definition of geographical diversity? Did you have participants on the west coast, in the midwest, and in the south?

Ylan Q. Mui: Sorry, should've been more clear! We meant geographically diverse across the Washington area. Everyone was local -- mainly because we needed to follow them all around the same mall on the same day! This project was not national in scale.


Newtown, Pa.: In a broader sense--since children have a great influence on the family budget, from needs to wants to education--should we not understand that such influence creates a different type of context and a different type of behavior than we seem to expect in our young people--especially in the educational process, but also in social situations as well? Just a question from a senior citizen!

Marshal Cohen: you are have greater influence today on purchases both for them and as advice for those purchasing products...just think of who helps grandparents learn what the right cell phone is or how to use the digital camera they got for holiday. Teens today play a very different role and as such need to be addressed along with the expectations that we place. good point


One of my daughter's friends is given a $200/week allowance for to use as she pleases. : I'm 46 and I don't spend that much! Can I be adopted?

Ylan Q. Mui:*lol* Any takers?


New York, N.Y.: Is there a difference between the way the generations use clothes? I remember learning to use clothes to dress for success -- is this concept lost on today's teens?

Marshal Cohen: Boomers dress for success, Teens dress to impress...big difference...teens today are dressing up not to go to work but for social, it is the way the have learned to set their own style and differentiate themselves from each other


Shanghai, China: What do they buy? what are they interested in ?

Donna Hamaker: The girls tend to be drawn to very feminine attire - especially cute dresses and tops.


D.C.: You knew there would be a few curmudgeons responding to this, so here's one: I am amazed and disheartened to see how materialistic these kids are at such a young age. I try to teach mine to only use as much as they need in life, and not to get sucked into the kind of consumerism on display here. If marketers can create young spenders like this by so throughly at such a young age, I have no chance.

Marshal Cohen: Dear curmudgeon, you are very right in your concern. However there is hope, in that you can work with your teen in learning the art of negotiation. Many kids today are learning that they can get what they really want with the sacrifice of buying a better valued item too. Example, expensive shirt at Abercrombie and less expensive jeans from Target.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Do you think any of the teens changed their habits because they were being watched? Wouldn't it have been easier to just follow the trends in their credit card receipts and conduct interviews based on their purchases? I know if I were a teen and were being followed on shopping trips (knowing that eventually the results of my trips would get back to my parents) I would shop more conservatively than on an unsupervised shopping trip.

I didn't really get much out of your story, and wonder if you were really able to prove anything. Was there a partner study of the parents and how they handle teen purchasing, and if/how it is controlled and/or monitored? Are we to really believe that teens with carte blanche (mommy or daddy's credit card in hand) actually control their spending?

Donna Hamaker: The girls that I observed were very animated while they shopped - but that is what I often observe when teens shop. It's not uncommon when girls shop together to hear them get excited about "the most adorable 'this'" or "the cutest 'that'". They were somewhat conservative but definitely loved the trends. They knew how to tweek the trends to adapt to their own comfort level. This was evidenced by doubling tees and putting tees under some dresses and tops.

Ylan Q. Mui: You know, it was amazing to me how easily the teens were able to tune us out. I mean, they spend all day tuning people out -- their teachers, parents, whoever. We became just the adults, really. We tried to spend enough time with the teens so they were comfortable with us, but also hold back a bit so that they didn't feel crowded.


Bowie, Md.: Why didn't you break down the teen spending habits based on ethnic background and/or family income? Not all teens shop alike, as outfits and bags may be cute, but most asian teens tend to be more name brand conscious.

Ylan Q. Mui: I'm not sure if that's true about Asian teens, but we didn't take detailed demographic information beyond their age and city.

We had a really great group because it was large enough that we got a sense of collective mindset but small enough to still be manageable, where we could still spend time with each student.


Columbia, Md.: I want to comment on what Colleen Cordes wrote about the social justice implications of shopping. This is something that my sons regularly discuss. They educated me about sweat shop free clothing. My fashion plate son is a vegan who doesn't wear leather. He is heavily into jeans (contrary to the article - maybe because it was so female dominated...did you try placing calls for participation in male oriented spots such as music reviews, etc???) and stated just recently that he will only buy organic or used jeans from now on. This would be an excellent topic for follow up.

Ylan Q. Mui: It's great that your son is so socially aware. I think that's an important point -- teens are often the first to pick up on something and are willing to be the first to experiment with clothes, music, what have you. I do think that the idea of teens being at the forefront of socially conscious retailing is one worth exploring more in depth.

Marshal Cohen: also keep in mind today teens are more philanthropic as a trend...


Los Angeles, Calif.: I was wondering if there's any variances on preferences for Pacific Sunwear, Hollister, and Zumiez? Also, did the girls try to venture into stores that target a slightly older demographic like bebe? Thanks.

Marshal Cohen: Pac Sun vs Hollister show up as a pure vs. style difference. Teens look at Pac Sun for authenticity vs Hollister which is all about style and image. So what was considered fashion trendy for Pac Sun two years ago, Hollister has stepped in that slot and Pac Sun has gone back to the store for the real life surf lifestyle shopper


Columbia, Md.: Are retailers exploring the RPG multi player world as well? my 11 year old enjoys buying different outfits for his avatar on Runescape...

Ylan Q. Mui: Actually, a few retailers have set up shop in Second Life! I believe American Apparel and Circuit City have already set up virtual stores in this other world.


New England: My daughter - age 18 - didn't really learn how to shop until she started to receive gift certificates from Grandma. Until then, she would run to the most expensive racks in the store. What did she know, mom was paying! And despite my advice to check out sale racks, that was the last place she would look. When she got her gift cards, she found out that mom's advice about checking the sale racks got her more bang for her buck. Now, at 18, she will come home with leather boots for $6 and other deals. We paid $29.99 for her prom dress on the sale rack at Macy's and she was the most stunning girl at the prom. Helps to have the body to carry the dress!

Ylan Q. Mui: Sounds like your lessons finally hit home!


Alexandria, Va.: Interesting article. Is it possible that your group of girls may not be an accurate representation of the teenage population? For example, teenagers interesting in participating in this type of article may naturally be more thoughtful and self-aware than their peers?

Marshal Cohen: always the case, when you ask for participants you tend to get those that lean towards being focused in that the results are a good guideline to view behavioral changes and one must always remember this is a group of representatives that provide insight not absolutes.


Re: diversity: Just a follow up on the diversity question. I am curious if the kids came from varying economic backgrounds. And if so, was there any interesting differences? If not, I would be curious to see a follow up piece on how teens in lower income brackets shop.

Ylan Q. Mui: They definitely came from different economic backgrounds, though it is true that the kids were self-selected. We called for volunteers -- not a scientific sample! One interesting point is that we did have two teens from DC who initially signed up to participate but couldn't make it to Tysons because they did not have transportation. So there was some drop off from the initial group that we had and who actually showed up at Tysons!


Washington, D.C.: The prom dress is another example of how teens can be all over the map. My daughter wouldn't consider a full-length dress, opting for a bright print halter dress costing $145. It was spectacular and she loved it.

Donna Hamaker: Teens are great because even though they can tend to "run with the pack" in terms of their general clothing choices, they often seek out opportunities to express themselves and their personalities with special occasion attire. Prom dresses are a prime example of this. Kudos to your daughter for finding the dress that was just her style!


Memories from youth: Just wanted to echo the comments of the woman approaching 64. I, too, have some great memories involving shopping from my teen years. Many involve my best friend at the time. She changed alot (and not for the better) and when I think of her years later--I always try to remember her when she still looked so fashionable and all the fun we had shopping. I remember shopping for college with my mom, also. She hates shopping but we still had fun!! I only have one experience with mom's credit card. I spent almost $400 which was a ton back then (still is!!). Lets just say that my parents were not impressed with my new Esprit outfits.

Ylan Q. Mui: Hah! Did you have to return them?


Rockville, Md.: A $200/week allowance? That's crazy. When I was 12 I got $15/week. Even adjusting for inflation that's only about $20 in 2007 dollars. When I was 13, I was cut off and had to (horrors!) get a part-time job. I did have a friend who was allowed to use her parent's credit card. She told us that she routinely spent $2,000 per month. Do retailers try to target the small segment of teens who spend like this?

Marshal Cohen: only a few retailers really target the very small amount of credit card carrying is more about influencing the influencers that set the trends in the school more than anyone else.


Bowie, Md.: Did you get a vibe on how these teens perceived others who didn't think or dress like them? I'm sure as these teens wandered the ball, they sized up other teens and had some catty responses. Imagine a peer or classmate of theirs who shopped at Walmart or Kmart for their threads because of their family income.

Ylan Q. Mui: Well, we did hear some interesting school gossip on the audio from the kids who were miked up! But what we heard most was them judging the stores, not the other folks in the mall.

Ylan Q. Mui: Another quick note: Also keep in mind that we asked them to come to Tysons specifically, so that we could have everyone in the same place at the same time.


Falls Church, Va.: What with all the camisoles, visible bra straps, boxer-shorts waistlines that one sees around the mall, am I an old fogey for thinking that underwear is not supposed to be visible? Do today's fathers no longer shout at their daughters, "You can't go out looking like that; put on more clothes!" Or at their sons, "Pull up your pants and put on a belt!"

There was a minor stir a while back when a wone's athletic team wore flipflops to the White House. Will tomorrow's young athletes wear visible underwear when they meet the President?

Donna Hamaker: Actually - from my perspective (seeing the teens who are shopping at Bloomingdale's) it looks like the teens have become more conservative. There doesn't seem to be nearly as much visible underwear as in years past.

Ylan Q. Mui: Do remember it was Mary Quant in the 1960s who pioneered the miniskirt!


Washington, D.C.: Was it primarily clothes that the girls (and boy) were interested in, or did they go to electronics, build-a-bear or bookstores?

Ylan Q. Mui: Actually, several of them visited Barnes & Nobles as well. I don't believe that anyone visited Build-a-Bear or any of the experiential stores. I think that our one boy visited GameStop and played PlayStation for a few minutes. But mostly, it was all about apparel.


Washington, D.C.: How physically diverse were the teens you followed? Specifically, do any of them wear a plus size, and how receptive are retailers to this market segment?

Ylan Q. Mui: The teens were of all body types! Plus size is definitely a market that retailers are paying more attention to. I know that even Saks has its own plus-size department, I think called Salon Z.

Marshal Cohen: retailers have only just begun to tap into this market...JC Penney, Torrid and one or two specialty retailers are focused on it, but image always gets in the way of opportunity in plus size while it is getting better, it is still an issue for plus size kids to have the same fashion experience...the good news, is the "Jordan Factor" the winner from American Idol is a plus size very fashion focused consumer and will likely be a spokesperson for someone to tap into for a huge opportunity. so stay tuned

Donna Hamaker: I'd like to chime in on this one as Bloomingdale's has both plus-size (Shop for Women) and petites (Shop for Petites) in our Washington DC area stores in Tysons Corner and White Flint. It's important that everyone looking for great fashion pieces be able to find the styles that compliment their body types.


Ylan Q. Mui: Thanks so much to everyone for participating in our chat today. We hope you enjoyed it, and please feel free to e-mail me at if you have any additional thoughts, comments, or story ideas.


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