June 2, 2005, 12:00 AM

What Teens Want

E-retailers looking for teens focus on hip products and content

As any parent will attest, teenagers and adults in their early 20s don’t always follow the conventional wisdom set by grown-ups. They have unique interests and often a different way of approaching life. So it only makes sense that online retailers’ approaches to attracting young people and getting them to buy will differ from the approaches they take with other customers.

In terms of online shopping, retailers need to look not just at what products young people want to buy, but also where to find these young people, what features attract them to web sites and what motivates them to make a purchase.

Separate sites

These differences between youth and older adults mean that not only do e-retailers that primarily sell to a young audience-CD stores and hip clothing merchants-need to take a different marketing approach, but often traditional retailers need to examine their strategies as well if they want to sell to the young. That’s why a number of mainstream retail outlets, including Macy’s, Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, have developed separate web sites for their younger customers. These sites not only sell merchandise specifically targeted to a younger audience, but the sites are designed and marketed specifically for youth. They also often provide additional non-sales-related content, such as fashion tips or celebrity news, that are expected to interest young people and get them to their sites.

For retailers trying to sell to the youth market, the first challenge is finding them. Putting out banner ads and sponsoring promotions at other web sites are only effective if these other sites already attract young people And those looking to the web to find young potential customers should find several categories of sites that fit the bill.

“Usually, social networking and education sites are a good place to start to look for young people,” says Alisa Ostrowski, senior analyst with comScore Networks Inc. Indeed, in a comScore survey of top web sites visited by persons 12 to 22, leading sites included thefacebook.com, quizilla.com, collegeboards.com, quizyourfriends.com and Xanga.com, all social networking sites. The list also included sparknotes.com, an education site.

Ensuring authenticity

But while such socializing sites are good places to find young people, some experts warn that retailers would be best to target social sites specifically for teens rather than general social networking web sites. “Sites like thefacebook.com or the education sites are good because they are known by young people to be safe. With some of the security problems associated with the Internet, teens today like those sites which take precautions to authenticate the identity of the users to make sure the others they are communicating with are who they say they are,” says Matt Britton, executive vice president of marketing for Mr. Youth Consulting, a marketing firm that advises retailers in appealing to persons aged 12 to 24.

Other online spots in which to find teens and young adults include game, music, fashion and sports sites, according to David Card, vice president and senior analyst for New York-based Jupiter Research who helped write a trio of reports that examined the online behavior of teens aged 13 to 17. And in terms of finding other retail sites on which to form partnerships for the purpose of sending visitors to a site, Card recommends hitting the online versions of the stores where teens already hang out at the mall. “Brands that work well in the real world do well online,” Card says. Indeed, some of the more popular retail sites among young people, according to comScore, are Hollisterco.com, owned by Abercrombie & Fitch, and Foot Locker sites.

Still, Card warns retailers against limiting their marketing approach to advertising on online sites. And in fact, Jupiter research shows that teenagers actually are online less than adults. The study found teens spend about 7 hours per week online. “Adults have access to the Internet both at work and at home. While teenagers technically have Internet access at school, it is not the unrestricted access that would benefit most retailers,” Card says. But digging down into the research, Jupiter found that while teens are online less often than adults, they are more frequent users of instant messaging and personal pages and blogging sites than adults. Teens also outpace adults in gaming, music and movie sites, but participate less in other online entertainment categories like sports and TV.

The multi-media approach

But just because teens don’t go online a lot to read about TV doesn’t mean they aren’t watching it. “The reality is that teens still spend more time watching TV than they do going online,” Card adds. Jupiter’s report found that teens spend 10 hours a week watching TV.

Therefore, a retailer looking to advertise to the young adult market would be wise to develop a multi-media campaign that encompasses TV advertising as well as online promotions, Card says. Music and cartoon cable networks as well as regular programming that appeal to youth would be good places to start.

Other findings of the Jupiter report show that teenage girls spend 22% more time online than boys. Teenage boys, however, spend 150% more time playing online games than teenage girls.

With such differences in how young people use the web vs. older adults, it is not surprising that some mainstream retailers have formed separate web sites for young people. Macy’s has created thisit.com (pronounced this is it) while Crate & Barrel has cb2.com and Pottery Barn has pbteen.com.

These youth sites generally do not sell product that cannot also be purchased at the parent sites. But rather they offer a select subsection of products deemed to appeal to youth with a twist on how these products are marketed and displayed. “You can use different navigational methods from our two sites and still get to the same product detail page,” says Kent Anderson, CEO of Macys.com. That explains how a parent shopping at Macys.com might end up purchasing the same sweater as a present that a younger person might buy for herself at thisit.com.

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