Little Women; Retailers' Efforts to Court Teens and 'Tweens' Include Lingerie Shops for the Junior-High Set
By Anitha Reddy
Soon it will be just another part of the shopping-mall experience: lingerie boutiques for the Sweet 16 set.
Stores carrying bras, panties and sleepwear marketed exclusively to the 'N Sync crowd are the latest attempt by retailers to snare the fickle-in-fashion but reliably spendthrift teen and tween shopper. Of the $75 billion that girls aged 12 to 19 spent last year, a third went to appease the gods of fashion, according to Teenage Research Unlimited. And then there are the nation's 27.6 million tweens -- the 7- to 14-year-olds who have been quick to join the free-spending shopping set.
The new underwear stores target shoppers of slightly different ages, but all are hoping to convince young women that what they put on underneath their baby tees and flared jeans can be just as hip as the puffy down jacket they toss on top.
Too Inc., the chain that operates 424 Limited Too stores across the country for 7- to 14-year-old girls, will send up seven trial balloons starting in November -- seven Mishmash stores selling intimate apparel, shoes and accessories, all for the parent store's core age group.
Two weeks ago, Gadzooks Inc., a Dallas-based chain stocked with Playboy T-shirts and Puma track suits, announced it would open five test stores called Orchid. In those stores, destined for Texas and Louisiana: underwear and sleepwear for girls 14 to 22.
And the San Diego-based Charlotte Russe Inc. has already opened eight Charlotte's Room stores, with one scheduled to arrive at Arundel Mills in Hanover, Md., in November. And what is Charlotte's Room? It's an emporium of sleepwear, innerwear and room decor items for the bopper boudoirs inhabited by girls 11 to 19.
"In focus groups, girls have told us that they would like a place that caters just to them," said Jim Motley, Gadzooks's chief financial officer. The chain's market research shows that girls buy most of their intimate apparel at department stores and specialty stores, but "they're not really comfortable shopping at Victoria's Secret because they see that as their mothers' store," he said.
Amy Kachel, a 15-year-old from Fairfax, agrees. "I think this year was the first year I said to myself, 'I will go in there,' " she said while shopping with her mother at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, "there" being Victoria's Secret.
"Amy gives me a list," said her mother, Margaret Meyer, explaining how her daughter's stores of underwear are usually replenished. If Amy does venture into the land of negligees and corsets, she asks her mother to "make sure there are no boys in there."
While Gadzooks's Motley is comfortable with the description of Orchid as a PG-13 version of the ubiquitous lingerie chain, Bob Atkinson, the chief financial officer of Too Inc., is not. He squirms when he hears Too's new Mishmash compared with Victoria's Secret, whose black-and-white TV commercials zoom in on supermodels from their bedhead hair to their pedicured toes.
"We saw the opportunity because . . . there's really not a retailer out there catering to the needs of the developing young girl," Atkinson said, adding that stores such as Mishmash are a "much more friendly" environment than department stores for girls who haven't grown into catwalk curves just yet.
The economics of "teentailer" specialty stores are driven by a combination of the demographic explosion of the echo boom and unique fashion needs.
"It's a group comfortable spending money," said Darrell Rigby, director of consulting firm Bain & Co.'s retail practice. "They spend their parents' money and they spend their own money. Teen girls have a lot of purchasing clout."
In other words, when it comes to consumer confidence, it's hard to get these girls down.
"Another factor is that the styles that teens wear are almost requiring new undergarments," Rigby said. "The low-rise pants just don't quite work with traditional underpants."
Of course, whether such a niche audience can support three chains peddling girls' innerwear is hard to say, especially because other clothing retailers appealing to teens and college students have introduced intimate apparel lines as well. American Eagle Outfitters, J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch and Express are just some of the stores cashing in on the trend.
Mishmash, Orchid and Charlotte's Room "are probably [each] going to present themselves to their customer in a different sort of way and it's up to the customer to decide where they want to leave their money," said Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Trend Report.
Also, teen stores have not been immune from the anemia that has sapped the retail sector's strength. Despite its heavy-breathing sexy-prep look, Abercrombie & Fitch reported that comparable-store sales were down 8 percent for its second fiscal quarter, which ended Aug. 4. Gadzooks's comparable-store sales were down 8.9 percent for the second quarter. Too Inc.'s comparables were flat. And Charlotte Russe reported at the beginning of July that fiscal third-quarter sales at comparable stores were off 6.6 percent.
More reason, perhaps, to drum up a little excitement, each in its own way. The stores' merchandise won't overlap entirely. While Orchid and Mishmash will have strong selections of basic lingerie and sleepwear, Charlotte's Room concentrates on funky decorations for the tween bedroom, like furry picture frames and leopard-print comforters. The stores will include a small selection of novelty lingerie and camisole and hot-pants sets.
That focus was partially a strategic decision to avoid the difficult task of predicting the vagaries of teen fashion tastes, according to Charlotte Russe's president and chief merchandising officer, Harriet Sustarsic.
"Innately, the gift business turns slower than the apparel business, so we're able to maximize a trend for a longer period of time," said Sustarsic, whose company also operates Charlotte Russe sportswear stores and the Rampage clothing line, both for young women. "A teen doesn't change her bedding as quickly as she changes her jeans."
That could be why Victoria's Secret doesn't attempt to explicitly target young women, and why Orchid, Mishmash and Charlotte's Room are all experimental ventures, whose fates may rest largely on how many bra and PJ sales they can rack up during holiday shopping sprees.
"At Victoria's Secret, we develop products geared toward an aspiration and attitude, not a specific age range," Victoria's Secret spokeswoman Angelika McClelland said in an e-mail message.
Not so for Too Inc., which, like Victoria's Secret, is a spinoff from the Limited. Too seems content with its 7- to 14-year-old set. It plans to add 20 to 25 Mishmash lingerie stores next winter if the test stores are well received.
"The danger is, teen fashion is notoriously fickle," Rigby said. "So whether this will be a lasting trend or whether by the time they get enough stores open to have scale, teens will have shifted to another hot item, remains to be seen."Leopard-print cotton-knit pajama pants and camisole tops are among the tweenage lingerie items offered by Charlotte's Room.
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