LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — Four girls - all with sparkling eye shadow - just trekked from the fashion van where they got the scoop on back-to-school clothes.
"Pedal pushers. Platforms," says Erin Kneese.
"Dragons, Chinese stuff," says her friend Margot Armstrong.
Yes, nylon parachute pants, a staple of early 1980s fashion - think Michael Jackson's 1983 style and break dancers - are back.
In a shopping mall parking lot on a hot summer night, more than 500 teenage girls, and a handful of boys and parents, wander through the Teen People Rock and Shop Fashion Van, a touring 30-foot vehicle showcasing brand-name fall fashions and the Moffats, an up-and-coming teen band - call them the new Hanson - who have already sold more than 2 million albums.
Teens with money to burn
Events like this one, sponsored by the magazine Teen People, are clearly aimed at getting kids to part with their money. And they have plenty of it to spend.
"Teens have an average of $85 a week in expendable income," says Anne Zehren, publisher of Teen People. "The teen population is growing twice as fast as the rest of the population. This is the group that needs to be targeted and certainly not ignored."
US Census Bureau data show that the number of 10- through 19-year-olds increased in 1999 to 39.3 million, up from 38.7 million a year ago and 37.7 million in 1996.
"Teens [now] have a lot of influence on family purchases," says Steven Naftelberg, director of media services at marketing firm Griffin Bacal. "This is especially true for older teens who have both parents working. They are responsible for what is brought into the household."
Working teens also figure into the equation with more discretionary spending burning a hole in the pocket of their Old Navy cargo pants.
This is particularly the case at the start of a new academic year.
Back-to-school sales are expected to be strong for the third year in a row. Teenagers and their parents will spend an average of $455 on back-to-school clothing and supplies this year, or about 12 percent more than in the late summer and early fall of 1998, according to a survey by charge-card issuer American Express.
With the way paved for teens and their purchasing power to make an impact at the cash register, it was inevitable that media and advertising would jump in.
Time Inc. recognized that opportunity 19 months ago, when it launched Teen People. The magazine is second only to the long-enduring Seventeen in the teen category, having risen from 500,000 issues at launch to 1.3 million,an increase of almost 300 percent.
"We get advertisers who know teens will be looking at this magazine," says Zehren.
Ad pages have risen similarly. Teen People carried 707 ad pages in 1998.
Zehren says the main thing that sets her magazine apart from the wave of other teen magazines is its use of "real teens" as models.
"We strike a chord in teens," she says. "We give them entertainment and also look at complex stories like the recent one [about the shootings] at Columbine [High School]. We stay away from makeup and relationship issues."
Well, not exactly.
The magazine does have several cosmetics advertisers, including Clinique. And while sections like "Stars and Entertainment" focus on Hollywood and "The Real World" on teens around the country, none of the teens in the photos looks as if she just woke up, jumped into her clothes, and ran to class.
The bait: music and freebies
Teen People and its big-name advertisers see the rock-'n'-roll fashion van as the perfect venue to promote themselves while showing the teens trendy back-to-school fashions and a hot rock band.
"For a little while, we give the teens the chance to be teens," says Zehren.
She adds, "We give them free stuff and they shop."
Teens attending the event received free "goody bags" filled with a Ralph Lauren shirt, a Doc Martin sampler CD, a mouse pad from Fossil, a few fragrance samples, and an issue of Teen People.
In the parking lot, mostly girls and their mothers roam through racks and tables.
If something catches her attention, the young consumer can try it on in the fashion van. Inside, every imaginable size can be found. If it fits and the teen wants to buy it, she gets a card with the item's number. She then goes across the street to Dillard's department store and buys the item. Instant gratification.
And that's important for today's teens, who aren't used to waiting around, says Zehren.
Self-expression through fashion
For those critics who see the rock-'n'-roll shopping bonanza as exploitation for big dollars, Zehren says, "Nonsense.
"Teens really don't have a lot of ways to express themselves. They look toward fashion and music as identifiers to their worlds. Style is their story," she says.
Even media critics are hard-pressed to throw a stone at magazines such as Teen People, citing that age group as more different than ever from its predecessors.
"Teens today are aging faster in that their responsibility has increased dramatically," says Mr. Naftelberg.
And their buying power is stronger.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society