CHICAGO -- Murmurs of excitement rippled through the large hotel conference room when the eight special guest panelists filed in. Empty chairs filled and doorways crowded with onlookers. Cell-phone chats ended abruptly. Spectators leaned forward, eager to catch every word.
These were no ordinary panelists to the officials of clothing companies, food giants, media dot-coms and others attending the marketing conference. They were American teen-agers, articulating the consumer habits of a group projected to spend a staggering $155 billion this year.
So they applauded the answers of these Chicago-area high school students, laughed at every attempted joke and flooded them with questions for an hour: Where do you buy things? What books do you like? What's your favorite band? Do you prefer TV or the Internet?
For these teens and others, the interest in their world by grownups is appreciated.
"It's nice to know my opinion is being paid attention to," says Silena Dukes, 16, of Bellwood, Ill., who wasn't on this panel but is nonetheless a contributor to intensifying market research into what makes teens tick. "It's pretty cool."
As Americans' unprecedented prosperity filters down to the next generation, attracting teens' business has become a Holy Grail for marketers.
"It's a very influential market," says Selina Gruber, president of Children's Market Research in New York. "Marketers never really paid that much attention to kids, but now they do because it's becoming their bread and butter."
The numbers are compelling enough to make any retailer run out and sponsor a Britney Spears concert.
Teenage Research Unlimited, a market research firm in Northbrook, Ill., projects that the 31.6 million Americans from ages 12-19 will spend $108 billion of their own money in 2000, along with $47 billion of their family's funds.
They also account for a disproportionately large share of consumer spending. Households with one or more teen-agers spend $10,000 more per year than those without any. And with parents working more than ever before, teens have assumed greater influence in household decision-making.
Demographics help explain the latest kowtowing to teen tastes -- the teen population has grown twice as fast the overall population in the last decade. They're also easier to reach than ever via the Internet, the biggest marketing boon since the bulk-mail rate.
This surge in "teen power" won't last forever. The so-called "echo boom" -- an upswing in births as baby boomers had children of their own -- faded in the mid-'90s, but that isn't stopping companies from retooling their sales pitches and strategies to make this group of mostly minors a major target.
Shampoo and clothes makers, among others, are tripping over each to associate themselves with concert tours of teen-popular acts like Spears, the Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera.
The record industry is letting teens pick the next hits on the Web via streaming audio, which lets them listen to selections online.
A linens manufacturer has come out with a separate line of towels and sheets for teens, advertised on MTV.
And television commercials that used to cater to Generation X often aim younger now, at Echo Boomers -- those born between 1977 and 1994.
"It's really taken off," says Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited. "What we've seen in the past couple of years is that all companies are re-evaluating their positions to see if there's a teen component they could add."
The teen marketing mania is evident in the proliferation of research surveys and in conferences like the one this fall in Chicago, which participants paid $1,599 to attend.
Pizza Hut hosts "roundtable discussions" with articulate teens via e-mail to make sure it's on the right track with their tastes. It has even invited some in to the company boardroom for a pizza lunch with its executives.
"People have been marketing to teens for years, but treating them as intelligent consumers is a new concept," says Kevin Umeh, head of the market research firm Element. His company provides insights on trends derived from 50,000 interviews with teens each month.
The marketing push pays off for teen-agers in more ways than one.
Simon Chermin, 18, of Westwood, Calif., volunteered for a roundtable discussion on video games. He eventually found himself in such demand that he regularly gives feedback to a half-dozen or so companies -- "I consider myself a professional respondent."
He has done focus groups, taste tests, written reports, live panels, phone interviews and even filmed a video of a day in his life, complete with morning shower.
"It's a lot of fun. It's a great business. And you get paid," said Chermin, who enjoys the process so much he had decided to make marketing his college major.
Companies pay as much as $100 for two hours of questioning on a panel, less for written reports. Some even fly regular, outspoken contributors to conferences.
Malls are getting teen-wise, too. It's a marked change in attitude from five years ago, when "mall-rat" teens were often viewed as a nuisance to storekeepers and other shoppers. Suburban malls sought to discourage them in favor of more affluent shoppers, like middle-aged women, so they added ritzier stores, kiddie stores, and chose not to put in movie theaters or fast-food courts.
Totally un-teen. Totally uncool.
But lately, says Wood, malls have been putting in teen spaces with rock-climbing walls, video game areas, basketball courts and kiosks with goods catering to teens.
The Block at Orange, a two-year-old shopping center with a skate park, video arcade and other youth fare, is a big teen draw in Orange County, California. Not far away, the huge Glendale Galleria set aside a 16,000-square-foot area called The Zone for teen- oriented stores.
"Malls are calling us asking, `How can we get them here? What events can we hold?'" says Wood. "The tide has really turned.
Like anthropologists agog over a new species, the Chicago conference-goers spent two days poring over genus teen-ager, marveling about its advanced culture and, more to the point, its purchasing power.
Common distinguishing characteristics: Opinionated, optimistic, money to burn -- though not necessarily in that order. Demand change and innovation, rebellious, always on lookout for bigger and better. Surprising tendency to get along with parents. Stressed by high expectations. Habitat: Often found surfing the Net.
Taken all together, this is "the most savvy generation ever," according to Larry Dykstra, vice president of consumer strategy for Pizza Hut, based in suburban Dallas.
"A new generation of consumers is emerging that is going to be vastly different from every other generation," he says. "They've grown up in a completely different world from baby boomers."
Some teen-agers who give feedback to Teen Research say that characterization is accurate. But they suggest it might be going too far to try to stereotype millions of them and their varying tastes.
"I like it because your opinion matters," Audrey Mitchell, 16, of Scottsdale, Ariz., says of the pro-teen tilt to marketing. "I just hope that marketing isn't all that teens are thought of for."
Are retailers getting too carried away by their teen infatuation? A mall president in Southern California thinks so.
Shaheen Sadeghi, founder of The Lab in Costa Mesa, Calif., says the industry is overreacting and risks putting off baby boomers, "the most powerful generation ever."
"You can't turn a commercial on these days that doesn't gear toward Gen Y," he says. "But balance is very important. I don't know that we could live on the 16-year-old that listens to Britney Spears."…