From the September 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

Cargo pants are over. The Backstreet Boys are cool--and way cute. 7th Heaven is the must-see TV show on the new must-see network, the WB. And, yes, computer literacy is as fundamental as learning your ABC's.

Welcome to the wonderful world of preteen America. Oh sure, much fuss is made over the awesome spending power of these kids' elder siblings--a.k.a., teens. Rest assured, however, that the legions of 9- to 12-year-olds whimsically referred to as "tweens" boast a shopping force all their own.

And they're not afraid to use it. "Finally, someone woke up and smelled the statistics," observes Karen Bokram, publisher and founding editor of Girls' Life magazine. "Whichever group has the largest number of people drives the culture. The only other [comparable group to today's youngsters] is their parents--the baby boomers--and who the hell wants to talk about them anymore?"

Who indeed? Although exact figures are hard to come by, we do know tween purchasing dollars number in the billions--and that's before tacking on the additional billions worth of influence these kids exercise over household expenditures. "More and more parents are ceding power to their kids," agrees Dan Acuff, author of What Kids Buy & Why: The Psychology of Marketing to Kids (Free Press). "Take fast food--which [restaurants] do we go to? We go to the ones they want. That's a tremendous influence."


Debra Phillips is a former senior editor for Entrepreneur.

Planet Tween

No one needs to tell Nancy Dennis about this influence. As the 43-year-old founder of the Toronto-based Ch!ckaboom girls' retail clothing chain, Dennis, along with partners Glenn Stonehouse, 49, and Arif Noor, 36, courts preteen consumers on a full-time basis. Convinced there existed an underserved market--and inspired by the success of Limited Too--Dennis opened the first of two Ch!ckaboom stores in 1997.

"I saw Ch!ckaboom as going one step further than Limited Too," Dennis explains. "We really make this a store for [preteen girls]. We market to them, we talk to them, we serve them. [We view the shopping experience] through their eyes."

To that end, Dennis and her young sales staff regularly sponsor in-store events and contests geared toward the tween girl. Perhaps Ch!ckaboom's most effective marketing tool, however, is the company's birthday club--on their birthdays, each of the 3,000-plus names in Ch!ckaboom's database receives a card and a $5 gift certificate. "These little girls aren't getting mail," Dennis points out, "so when they get something from Ch!ckaboom, they're thrilled."

For her part, Bokram is struck by the strength of mail-order catalogs such as the much ballyhooed Delia's--an upstart teen clothier looking to take its winning formula to tweens. "For most people, trying to reach this girl is like trying to market to someone on Mars," Bokram says. "Delia's does a wonderful job. It managed to build a business where there had been nothing. No one was marketing to these girls on a catalog basis; nobody thought it would work."

So much for conventional wisdom.

The Young & Technologically Restless

OK, so maybe you had already figured out the bit about tweens not being from Mars--or Venus either, for that matter. But that doesn't mean those boys and girls poised on the threshold of teendom today don't remain something of a mystery. Exactly who are these youngsters who seem so much more mature than previous generations of tweens gone by--yet barely old enough to watch the teen-ridden angst of TV's hugely popular Dawson's Creek?

"They live in a technological world," says author Acuff, who is also president of Youth Market System Consulting and The Character Lab in Sherman Oaks, California. "Today's preteens are living in a more complex world."

"There's a real sophistication going on with this generation," echoes Dennis. "My daughter moved from Disney to Buffy the Vampire Slayer by age 7."

"There are so many of them--and they're so bright," adds Bokram. "They've grown up in a world of information and knowledge that's unmatched. They have access to more types of information from more sources than we could have ever imagined."

So it's all the more difficult to grab their attention, right? Well, yes--and no. Although contemporary tweens enjoy entertainment options galore--to say nothing of time-consuming extracurricular pursuits like after-school sports--their minds are still arguably more focused than many adults.

"Kids' attention spans are better and stronger than adults," maintains Acuff. "A lot of it is about learning and meeting challenges. The reason a video game can occupy a kid's time for three hours is because it has many levels of challenge."

Of course, that doesn't make kids an easy sell. Warns Acuff, "Don't underestimate their intelligence."

Age Of Innocence

While you're at it, don't overestimate their rebelliousness. Although teenagers are generally expected to go a little James Dean on their parents--their younger counterparts rarely opt for such adversity. "It's a conformative time," says Acuff. "[Preteens] conform to peer pressure, trends, apparel tastes and so forth because they're anxious to be accepted. They're moving away from the need to be loved solely by their parents to the need to be loved and accepted by their peers. It puts a lot of pressure on them."

Without question, this gives businesses a tricky balance to strike as well. On the one hand, tweens, especially of the modern-day variety, are grown up enough to scoff at the likes of Mickey Mouse and his cartoon pals. On the other hand, this is still an age of innocence.

"There's a gray area," acknowledges Dennis, whose Ch!ckaboom stores feature nail polish bars but refrain from selling makeup. "I'm a parent, and I don't want [preteens] to look like teenagers. This isn't about loss of innocence; it's about having fun."

"When you think back to when you were 12 years old, that was the last time in your life when you weren't really trying to impress [the opposite sex] that much," agrees Bokram. "You're just happily plodding along, thinking about what you're going to do with your life. There's a feeling of optimism and [the idea that] the world is laid out before you."

Ironically, this generation of tweens may only be matched in their optimism by their parents--the we-can-change-the-world baby boomers. "They haven't really lived through bad times," says Dennis of pre-millennium tweens. "That's really molded them. There's an optimism and confidence [about them] that I see."

So who says history never repeats itself?

Here And Now

Yet to suggest there isn't anything new in tween town would be misleading. Most obviously, there's a greater ethnic diversity among preteens in the United States now. Then, too, there's the interactivity of technology. For instance, whereas baby boomers absorbed product information through TV commercials while growing up, their children are able to actively explore the Internet in order to discover the latest in merchandise. And today's kids aren't just connected via modem--they possess cell phones and pagers to boot. Such strong communication ties are welcome given the phenomenon of more two-working-parent households.

"The increased percentage of working mothers has shifted more responsibility to the preteen," Acuff says. "By 2001, [these kids will wield] something like $300 billion in influence."

Which is a reality that checks the heartbeats of all but the most jaded of entrepreneurs. Even corporate giants are eagerly targeting young spenders. For starters, there's hip home furnishings chain Pottery Barn's mail-order venture, Pottery Barn Kids. Add to that DKNY Kids, Limited Too, Gap Kids and Abercrombie & Fitch's well-publicized forays into kidswear, and you get a picture of how influential tweens are becoming. There are also kid-designated soaps, bottled water, radio and TV networks, platform shoes and--seriously!--mutual funds.

"This group definitely deserves its own stores," insists Dennis, who predicts Ch!ckaboom's 1999 sales figures will reach $2 million. "People say to me, `This is such a narrow niche.' It's not. It's a fantastic niche, and it's only getting better."

In Sharp Focus

For her money, Dennis thinks preteen girls in particular make for a better market niche than preteen boys--and the consensus seems to be that she's right. "The only thing freakier to marketers than young girls is young boys," Bokram wryly points out. "As tough as girls are, girls also represent predictable economic stuff--clothes, makeup, shoes, accessories. Guys just generally aren't as conscious of fashion--they prefer something simple like khakis."

Just like their teen counterparts, as a matter of fact. That said, however, entrepreneurs are cautioned against linking tweens too closely to teens. Popular perceptions to the contrary, tweens aren't merely teenagers in miniaturized form. Funny as it may sound, there's a big difference between being 10 years old and being 14.

"There's this school of thought by less sophisticated marketers that maintains if you're reaching 15-year-olds, then you'll get the 12-year-olds, too," says Bokram. "That's simply not true."

It's a vital lesson for kid-targeting companies to learn--and stick with. "I don't want the teens," Dennis says. "I think when you go into business, you have to be very focused on who you're going after. I don't want to be all things to all people."

And this condition of sharp focus extends to resisting the urge to market to tweens' parents rather than to tweens themselves. Admittedly, parents are most likely to provide kids with the financial wherewithal to make purchases, but kids are still the ultimate decision-makers. Again, it's a tricky balance to strike.

Young At Heart

In his widely hailed research on child-age consumers, author and Texas A&M University marketing professor James McNeal points out that there's not one but three different children's markets. First and foremost, there's the market created by kids' direct spending. Second, there's the market stemming from kids' influence over their family's purchases. Finally, there's the market of the future--that is, courting kids to eventually become loyal adult consumers. With so much at stake, it's easy to see why so many eyes are on the tween-age kids of the baby boomers. They are the present; they are also the future.

And they aren't an easy sell. But maybe it helps for entrepreneurs to remain somewhat young at heart themselves. "I'm probably the perfect person for this business," enthuses Ch!ckaboom's Dennis, a loyal viewer of the hip TV shows Dawson's Creek and Felicity. "I'm a perpetual [kid] myself."

Growing Strong

What's it like to be a tween in 1999? It means reading everything from Teen People to YM to Girls' Life to a whole range of skateboarding and surfing magazines. It means having your own e-mail address--or at least being on your way to getting one. It means, ultimately, being who you are.

Like 11-year-old Taylor Carico, who listens to teenage singing superstar Britney Spears and plays volleyball twice a week. "I'm so busy," says the tween, citing a shopping preference for department stores like Macy's and Nordstrom. How much do friends influence her buying decisions? "I don't usually copy what friends wear," Carico says. "I just wear what I'm comfortable with."

"A lot of my friends buy stuff they see in magazines," offers Cassie Kreitner, 11, who frequently shops at Limited Too and Old Navy. Describing her generation as "talkative," Kreitner says peer pressure goes only so far: "With clothing, if I see someone [wearing something I like], I might get something similar to it, but not exactly the same."

For 11-year-old Ricky Norris, watching Pokémon on TV is a favorite way to spend time--as is occasionally acting in TV commercials. Like a lot of tweens, Norris also enjoys auto-racing (as a spectator, not a participant) and playing hockey. What's cool to him? Vans, Billabong clothing--and Mom surprising him with gifts of new threads.

"We [shop] together," says Amanda Limburg of herself and her mother. "We look through the store, and I pick out what I like, and she picks out what she likes, and we agree on what to get." Although she still enjoys visiting Disneyland, this 11-year-old admits she's outgrown some Disney stuff and leans towards such stores as Limited Too, Old Navy and the Gap. How does she view today's tweens? Replies Limburg, "We're weird, I think."

On The Tween Tip

Feeling lost in preteen USA? Here's a handy road map to get you tuned in to the latest and greatest according to today's tweens.

HOT TV SHOWS:

  • Charmed
  • Dawson's Creek
  • Rugrats
  • 7th Heaven

Ones to watch for this season: New fall TV offerings from the creators of Dawson's Creek (Wasteland), Party of Five (Time Of Your Life), and 7th Heaven (Safe Harbor)

HOT READS:

  • American Girl
  • Delia's mail-order catalog
  • Girls' Life
  • Teen
  • Teen People

HOT BRANDS:

  • Abercrombie & Fitch
  • Billabong
  • Bonnie Bell
  • Limited Too
  • Pottery Barn Kids
  • Rampage Girls
  • Skechers
  • Steve Madden
  • Union Bay
  • Vans

HOT ACTIVITIES:

  • Chatting with friends via e-mail
  • Shopping
  • Studying (Yep, it's cool to be smart.)

HOT MARKETING APPROACH:

Acknowledging the intelligence of today's tweens, à la Arizona Jeans' recent TV advertising campaign featuring a group of media-savvy kids mocking the lengths to which companies go to appear hip. So nix any attempt to adopt the latest lingo or over-zealous effort to reach tweens at their level. As the youngsters advise: "Just show us the jeans."

Contact Sources

Ch!ckaboom, (416) 782-6162

Girls' Life,http://www.girlslife.com

Youth Market System, (818) 783-5551, dacuffq@aol.com