It wasn’t long ago that this time year was the chance for preppy students to show off their ability to stay hip by wearing the latest fashions in back-to-school dress. Clothing, however, apparently isn’t as fashionable these days as having the latest tech.
And this phenomenon has teen-apparel retailers scrambling because the latest jeans just aren’t selling the same as they used to. Instead, in this “stay connected” society we now live, the latest smartphones and other gadgetry are more important.
"Clothes aren’t as important to me,” Olivia D’Amico, a 16-year-old from New York, told the New York Times recently while shopping at Hollister. “Half the time I don’t really buy any brands. I just bought a pair of fake Doc Martens because I don’t really care."
Indeed, teens are finding it more important to have a new phone. “A phone keeps you much more entertained. It’s a better distraction than clothing.” Nicole Myers, 19, a model in New York told the Times report as she left an Apple store with a new $200 iPhone.
Retailers are having enough problems these days with reductions in foot traffic as more consumers shop online for better deals. But to compound the problem with competition from technology is creating a hole where retailers traditionally felt safe—back-to-school clothing lines. It’s also why more retailers are turning to omnichannel initiatives where they can attract more buyers regardless of where they are.
A major shift in teenage trends clearly is underway. John Morris, a retail analyst at BMO Capital Markets, told the Times, noting regular focus groups with teenagers show what they find most appealing often strays from clothing. “You try to get them talking about what’s the next look, what they’re excited about purchasing in apparel, and the conversation always circles back to the iPhone 6,” he said in the article. “You get them talking about crop tops, you get a nice little debate about high-waist going, but the conversation keeps shifting back."
Fashion, it appears, has shifted around the technology itself, with blinged out phone cases as a prime example. “Having a cool phone to show you’re plugged in is a huge part of people’s style, a huge part of life these days,” Eva Chen, editor in chief of Lucky Magazine, told the Times.
The trend among teens shifting from clothing to tech may be leveling out. In the Times article, Stephanie Wissink, a Piper Jaffray managing director, said the percentage of money teens spend on electronics appears to have stabilized at around 8 percent or 9 percent, as cellphone penetration is high and children must generally wait for their next upgrade for their next device.
Indeed, shopping-trip frequency is on the decline, according to a Piper Jaffray teen-spending report. It found for the first time in its history more spending on food among teens than on clothing, another bad sign for retailers.
The back-to-school season does remain crucial for retailers, but they’ll have to adjust. “The grave mistake was to annually assume that the back-to-school shopper was going to show up like clockwork in July and buy goods in that time frame,” John Morris, a retail analyst at BMO Capital Markets, told the Times.
And retailers have begun ordering fewer items and are focusing on their margins. “Back-to-school is important, and people want to have it be successful, but each year, it seems it’s a little bit harder to do as well as you did before,” Richard Jaffe, an analyst at Stifel, told the Times. “The peak becomes less of a peak."