Gimmee More!

Unlike giftables for young children and babies, which often center around perennial reorders of the same soft blankies, cuddly plush and adorable layette, the tween market revolves around blink-and-you’ve-missed-them fads. If you recall the Webkinz frenzy, you know such products can be all the rage with middle-schoolers one day and a forgotten relic the next. […]

Unlike giftables for young children and babies, which often center around perennial reorders of the same soft blankies, cuddly plush and adorable layette, the tween market revolves around blink-and-you’ve-missed-them fads. If you recall the Webkinz frenzy, you know such products can be all the rage with middle-schoolers one day and a forgotten relic the next. While staying on top of trends takes a bit of work, the rewards are plentiful. To keep up with tween tastes, retailers channel their inner 12-year-olds, search teenybopper magazines and keep an eye on pop culture phenoms.

Modern Must-Haves

Being a kid today means two things: You must blast Justin Beiber on your iPod and you must wear multiple Silly Bandz on your wrist. The animal-shaped bracelets from Brain Child Products are the “it” item of 2010, spawning a raft of imitators. How long kids will find the need to collect this accessory is anyone’s guess, but judging by the lifecycle of other recent hot products, the company will need to find a way to evolve in order to stay relevant.

For instance, M3 Girl Designs, maker of Snap Caps magnetic bottle cap jewelry, is fueling demand for its product by adding new concepts. “Snap Caps are still hot,” said Amy Ackerman of New York’s Ilene Oren & Company showroom. But it’s newness that sparks excitement, she added, noting the brand’s nine newly launched product groups. “There are bracelets, dog tags and the black chokers are now available in eight different colors. They have matching journals and picture frames. It’s turned into an entire brand.”
The variety of options within the MOGO magnetic bracelet line also keeps kids coming back, according to Jennifer Bruder, owner of the Berkley Girl boutique in New York. “The bands are $14 and the charms are $4 a piece, so the girls can choose from their initials or peace signs and a whole bunch of other designs.”

A common thread between many of these items is the ability for the consumer to personalize. Girls can mix and match charms to fit their mood or coordinate with their outfits. Marilyn Klein, owner of the Klein Group showroom in Dallas and Atlanta, noted another popular item for tweens: Popochos brightly colored sport watches, which have interchangeable skins in different colors or embellishments that girls can customize. The best thing about this attribute? It can translate into multiple sales opportunities for retailers.

In general, jewelry items are very hot gifts for tween girls, especially those sporting peace sign motifs (the old hippie symbol is still de rigeur 52 years after its creation). Kids are also finding cupcakes are as fun to wear as they are to eat. “What’s been selling really well for us is Lulu Princess jewelry—little cupcake bracelets and necklaces, peace sign bracelets and rings in tie-dye colors,” said Jeanette Trujillo, owner of The Glitter Box showroom in Los Angeles. “The Cutie Pie collection of fur-covered backpacks is also doing well, as is any accessory with cupcakes, candies or peace signs on them.”

While Marina Levy, who co-owns the San Francisco Bubble stores with Anna Arzhintar, agrees that jewelry is a given for girls—specifically “evil eye” bracelets and peace sign necklaces by Blee Inara, plus anything from High IntenCity—she also knows how to interest their male counterparts. “For tween boys, we do really well with wallets,” Levy reported. “Quiksilver’s soft two- or three-fold wallets with Velcro seem to be what the kids want.”

Anything tech-oriented also has the possibility of crossing gender lines, especially products designed to jazz up a tween’s iPhone or iTouch. Klein noted one of the hot items in her showroom at the moment is Cell Fronts’ protective iPhone cases, which are spiced up with allover crystals, peace signs, butterflies, hearts, stripes and animal prints. In addition, she cited Budclicks—earbud headphone accessories for boys and girls in fun star, skull, iron cross, flip-flop and eight ball motifs—as a prime tween gift.

Eyes on the Prized

Paying attention to what tweens are watching and wearing is key to keeping up with this fickle crowd. Celebrities are a good indicator, too. “Our buyer [co-owner Arzhintar] is big into fashion magazines,” said Levy. “She reads a lot and sees what celebrities and their kids are wearing. We [also] do a lot of research online, and then there are the showrooms; they give you word in advance about what is selling. They stay on top of the trends.”

“We read lots of magazines—children’s magazines as well as lifestyle magazines like Real Simple,” echoed Gina DeFrank, co-owner of Moxie Kids in Raleigh, N.C. “Also, there are a couple of really good parenting blogs out there that review products and offer us new gift ideas. We particularly like Cool Mom Picks, because they really uncover the innovative and well-designed products.”

Getting a jump on those under-the-radar gifts helps grab the attention of young shoppers. “When I buy gift items, I look for things no [other retailer] has,” explained Simone Oettinger, owner of Maya Papaya & Tony Macarony, a go-to resource for local shopping in Evanston, Ill. “[I want] a mix of classics and items no one else is carrying at the moment—things that are good for birthday gifts.” Kids have countless birthday parties to attend, she said, adding that the typical price range for older kids’ gifts usually falls between $15 and $20.

No matter how attuned you are, it’s very likely the tween consumer is still one step ahead, which is why many retailers rely on tweens themselves for direction. “I am in the shop almost every day,” said Jean Polsky, owner of the Estella boutique in New York. “I listen carefully to what my customers are saying so that I can anticipate their needs.”
“Talking to customers is important, as is staying in good price points,” asserted Kim Sibley, owner of Little Urbanites, a shop in Portland, Ore. Sibley noted she doesn’t shop trade shows, preferring to source through magazines and uncovering gems on blogs. Still, she is careful to suss out quality products that provide good value.

Bruder of Berkley Girl takes advice from all avenues—customers, vendors and her sales staff—but she’s also adept at honing in on emerging pop-culture patterns. “It’s important to know what’s popular [with tweens]—the certain shows they’re watching and the merchandise connected to them.”

Display Savvy

Once the merchandise has been selected, the next step is to let youth shoppers know it’s there to be had. But retailers note there’s more to it than dangling a shiny object at a tween’s eye level.

Levy of Bubble likes to keep giftables visible but out of reach. “We have very large counters in both of our stores,” she said. “I display items on the counter one item at a time. Otherwise, it tends to be overwhelming.” Levy noted that customers sometimes damage product in their zeal to sift through for their favorites, so she puts one of each item on display and keeps the rest of the stock away from customers.

Yet showcasing the product prominently is important. “When I was a buyer at Bergdorf Goodman, I remember the CEO saying that our windows were the most valuable real estate we had,” Polsky explained. “I’ve carried that wisdom with me and make sure we use our windows very strategically here.” Wise words—especially since with tween customers, it’s vital to get the product out of the box and into their hot little hands before the trend goes cold. —Jacqueline Micucci


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