They're all scrunched together on the couches in the funky living room--disco glitter ball revolving overhead, album covers plastering the walls, a new Irish band on the CD player--chattering about makeup. Alexis, Ryan and Kigho, 11th-graders in parochial-school pleated skirts and chunky shoes, are giggling on one sofa, and their schoolmates Erika, Krissy and Whitney, on the other, are yakking on about how Kigho adores Hard Candy eye shadow (in colors like Trash, Void and Jailbait) and how Alexis cherishes Dirty Girl soap for the name alone and how Cover Girl has "fun commercials" but Whitney just cannot stand Tyra Banks.

"The 9-year-old I tutor wears Cover Girl and she's like, 'I'm so cool,' " says Kigho, pronouncing the brand dead. A 9-year-old? Never mind. Moving on.

Jane Rinzler Buckingham, looking not much older than a high school kid herself in cargo pants and boots, steers the focus group with practiced ease. Her firm, Youth Intelligence, has recruited this cadre to help a client, a major cosmetics manufacturer, figure out how to develop a perfume that will appeal to teenagers--attracting teenagers being a mission that currently preoccupies much of American business. The girls will each receive 50 bucks for their hour of disgorging opinions. Youth Intelligence--this cool town house in Greenwich Village is the company's carefully teenager-attuned headquarters--will, at the end of this two-month, three-city project, pocket a fee in the mid-five figures.

With the girls at ease after some popcorn and M&M's, some banter about TV and movies and discussions of their preferences in nail polish and skin care goo, Buckingham proposes a little exercise. She passes around legal pads and asks each to draw or write her ideas for a new fragrance. Five minutes of scribbling, and then ponytailed Alexis is the first to sound off.

"Number one, I think it should come in a roll-on, because I think that would be So. Much. Easier," she announces authoritatively. As for the scent, "You know when you walk into Dunkin' Donuts? How great it smells in there? I like, like, vanilla and orange and things that smell tasty. So, like, I think Dunkin' Donuts air should be, like, a smell you can wear."

Even though everyone's giggling, Buckingham is looking fascinated and saying, "Great, thanks," and her associate is taking careful notes. When it comes to comprehending this generation, corporate angst runs high. "People are just desperate to understand teens," Buckingham has found. Generation Why or the Echo Boomers or the Millennials--as various marketing concerns have dubbed the growing cohort--are coming of age, and there's not much time left to figure out who these kids are and what they want. They're different from their parents, the boomers, and from those gloomy Gen X'ers, and who knows? Just possibly what they want, in a fragrance, is Eau de Fried Dough.

'Zit-Geist'

These Kids Today: Pundits, parents, talk show hosts and commentators with PhDs talked of little else earlier this spring. The attempt to plumb young people's hearts and minds took on particular urgency after the school shootings in Littleton, Colo. But well before this most recent installment of the teenagers-and-violence debate, experts of other kinds were looking into more prosaic concerns. Teenagers and cola. Teenagers and electronics. Teenagers and just about everything.

Consumer companies began heeding the numbers a few years ago: only 27 million teenagers in 1992, but 31 million this year and 35 million a decade hence. These kids spent a vast $140 billion last year, says Michael Wood of Teen Research Unlimited in suburban Chicago, not only because they can find jobs in a booming economy but because their harried parents are delegating the grocery shopping. They influence other kinds of household purchases, too. "The teen's the in-house expert adviser on what kind of VCR to buy or how much memory the home computer should have," Wood notes.

Culturally, too, the teenage takeover is well underway: All those movies with multiple-name stars--Sarah Michelle Gellar, James Van Der Beek--that you've never heard of unless you watch certain key TV shows. The shows themselves, propelling to prominence a previously little-noticed network called the WB. A spate of publications: On the heels of Teen People, media companies have announced plans for Teen Newsweek, a young version of Cosmopolitan, even a youth-oriented magazine called the New York Times Upfront. Variety, the show biz bible, has proclaimed the "zit-geist."

Naturally, research firms and trend-sniffing boutiques are springing up everywhere, purporting to take the pulse of teenagers (and that of their younger and slightly older siblings). "One industry after another, they're making their mark," Ed Winter, founder of the two-year-old marketing company U30 (for "under 30") in Knoxville, Tenn., says of the young. "They pretty much spawned Internet use. They've changed television as we know it. They've changed the box office, and fashion. What's next?"

There's no shortage of companies that want to know. Buckingham, who's 30, launched Youth Intelligence just four years ago; now 30 clients--including Coke, Sprint, Clairol, Polo, MTV and the Office of National Drug Control Policy--hire YI for advice or shell out $18,000 a year for three issues of its Cassandra Report.

Of course, getting kids to express their deepest, most authentic feelings about hair color and snack foods--not to mention drug use--is tricky, the teen-trackers say. YI finds its subjects at skate parks, beaches and movieplexes as well as malls. It avoids traditional focus-group rooms with one-way glass in favor of its comfy Village quarters, where Birmingham's cats wander through; it also conducts interviews in bowling alleys, pizza parlors and neighborhood Starbucks. "You don't want them to feel examined," Birmingham says of the young interviewees. "They'll clam up or just start telling you what you want to hear." Nor do they like feeling patronized: The YI staffers who lead discussions and distribute questionnaires are young themselves but don't pretend to teenhood. "You don't want someone to go in dressed in Tommy and FUBU," says Birmingham, citing two hip-hop-inspired apparel brands.

Sometimes YI lends video cameras to a few of the young and cool and asks them to tape their rooms, closets, friends, hangouts. On the other hand, at least once a week Birmingham et al. just grab a taxi and dash downtown on cool-hunting excursions, convinced that some version of what they see on Prince Street today will show up at malls in Cincinnati next summer.

'Pre-Trendy or Post-Trendy?'

SoHo has gotten too "mainstream," a mallish expanse dominated by chain stores, so Buckingham heads for NoLIta, the narrow streets North of Little Italy, where idiosyncratic shops and eateries are swiftly replacing laundries and delis. Research associate Clare Ramsey and Barbara Coulon, whose enviable title is director of trends, ride along.

"Braille necklaces!" Coulon yelps at the first stop, a tiny Mott Street storefront called Hedra Prue. She strokes a fringed suede bag on a shelf, ponders a macrame overskirt.

Across the street to Detacher. "Lifestyle store!" announces the director of trends. Lifestyle stores "have clothing and music and art you can buy and stuff for your house, the smaller version of Banana Republic going into towels and bedding," Buckingham explains.

A quick sprint around the corner to Hotel of the Rising Sun (menswear mixed with political pamphlets) and Scarlet and Sage (Indian clothing, beaded jewelry, candles), then a pit stop at Rice, a dark Asian-influenced restaurant serving 10 varieties of rice and six teas.

"So what did we learn?" Buckingham sums up. That trendies will be wearing jewelry that makes statements, via symbols or Braille or Chinese characters. "More intelligent-style fashion; you're learning something," is Coulon's interpretation. That body pouches could replace backpacks if manufacturers make them easier to put on and roomy enough to actually hold stuff. That ethnic neo-hippism lives. "We've been seeing a lot of handcrafted things, embossed leather, crocheting," Coulon says. "A sort of backlash against technology."

It's not easy being so constantly on trend alert. Now that tae bo has hit suburban gyms, the avant are on to the next fitness fad: krav maga, supposedly an Israeli self-defense regimen. Now that college kids all tote laptops, the truly hip have adopted two-pound microcomputers that Ramsey's about to go check out.

"You can't buy anything without thinking, 'Is this pre-trendy? Or post-trendy?' " Buckingham laments. "And then, what happens when something you like goes Out?"

Teen Spirit

Beyond the fads, however, what marketers want to know about Gen Y (roughly 11- to 22-year-olds, by Youth Intelligence's definition) is what their values and habits are, what lures or repels them, how to send the subliminal message "I understand you. Now open your wallet." Get that right and a company can be Volkswagen of America (40 percent of its customers are under 30). Get it wrong and it can be Levi's (market share down from 31 percent to 14 percent over eight years).

As it turns out, the generational portrait provided by various researchers, if they're right--and teen-stalking is hardly an exact science--is intriguing. Today's marketing-savvy kids can be hard to sell to, it seems, but not that hard to like:

* "Where Generation X was pessimistic, this generation is more optimistic," says Buckingham. "They embrace things that are more lighthearted, from Britney Spears and the Spice Girls to Buffy [a k a the Vampire Slayer]. It doesn't have to be all angst." Gen X'ers, now in their twenties and thirties, came of age amid recession, rampant divorce, the AIDS epidemic and predictions of environmental disaster and lower living standards than their parents'. Their successors, the boomers' children, have grown up seeing economic prosperity, a flattening divorce rate, noticeable medical progress and movements like recycling and rain-forest-saving that make them "feel empowered to make things happen."

* They're also the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history, borrowing tastes and styles from everyone, everywhere. "You're seeing more cultural mixing," says Wood of Teen Research Unlimited. "Where there were clear lines between Caucasian and Asian American and African American, those lines are becoming very blurred." Think Tiger Woods.

* Like each new wave of teenagers, they revel in taboo-smashing. "Porn chic, 'South Park,' the edgier the better," notes J. Walker Smith of Yankelovich Partners. "Pushing the extremes is a large part of what teens respond to in popular culture."

It's also a large part of what makes adults nervous. Yet a taste for the outrageous doesn't seem to have generated much of a generation gap; when the pollsters at Teen Research Unlimited ask which people teenagers admire, whose opinions matter to them, the No. 1 answer is always . . . their parents. "Not that they look to their parents for what to wear or listen to," says Wood. "But they place a lot of value on the stability that the family provides. They say friendships may come and go but their parents are always there for them."

* Barely able to remember a time before 70 channels, cellular phones, pagers and the World Wide Web, they think technology is cool. "They're the real computer whiz kids, the ones teaching their parents," Buckingham says. "They mastered it in a way other generations haven't, and it makes them feel smart." Technology is one of the forces that make Gen Y kids sanguine about navigating the future.

Littleton didn't seriously batter that optimism, researchers say. True, in May's Cassandra Report, the answer to the survey question "What is the biggest issue facing your generation today?" wasn't "drugs," as it usually is; for the first time, the most common response was "violence." Still, "it was upsetting, but they don't think it will happen to them," Buckingham has found. "They seem to be saying: 'Those guys were psychos. This isn't me. It isn't the people in my school. This was an aberration.' "

An Intercept

Amanda Freeman, a 22-year-old Youth Intelligence associate, cruises the Urban Outfitters store on Sixth Avenue, looking for likely subjects. Today's mission, on behalf of a mass merchandiser (think Kmart, J.C. Penney, Sears) is "intercepts" with 10- to 20-year-old females. The client, Freeman says, "wants to know what people are into right now, favorite music, actor, color, stuff like that. And we're also going to probe their shopping habits."

It doesn't take long before she links up with two Brooklyn ninth-graders in black nylon jackets and bell-bottoms. Lisa, who's 15, and Courtney, who's almost, are spending the day shopping in the Village and don't seem to mind Freeman's tagging along and asking a stream of questions.

She likes pink, says Lisa, a curly-haired kid in braces. She likes Urban Outfitters because it has "different stuff," whereas "in the Gap, you know, like, everything's Gap." She and Courtney like Brandy and Offspring, and Seventeen and YM. And Matt Damon and that cute guy on "Days of Our Lives." And tank tops with spaghetti straps. And this white dress she's plucking from the rack. "I like the whole white thing," she announces. "Except I'm always afraid I'll spill something on it."

Apparently, it doesn't feel odd to be shadowed like this. In fact, Lisa's getting used to it. Just two weeks earlier, she was sitting in a Manhattan Starbucks with a few friends when some market researchers from the DreamWorks studio asked them to preview several movie trailers. Which they did.

So why shouldn't they feel influential, ascendant? People with clipboards keep waylaying them at the mall, seeking their opinions. Everybody wants to know what Lisa thinks.

CAPTION: Youth Intelligence, a New York market research firm, invited Kigho, Ryan, Erika, Krissy and Whitney, left to right, to its Greenwich Village office to talk about teen fragrances.

CAPTION: Girls from Marymount School were invited to discuss makeup--stuff they liked, brands they hated and what they thought a new fragrance should look and smell like. One suggestion was a Dunkin' Donuts-like fragrance.