Tuning in Teens -- Businesses Intensify Pitch for `Savviest Generation Ever'

Article excerpt

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. …

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