Social media focuses teen shoppers on clothing items, not brands

A shopper carries an Abercrombie & Fitch bag down Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Teenagers spend roughly $30 billion dollars a year on clothing, according to the investment bank Piper Jaffray. And the way they spend those billions is changing. Brands like Abercrombie & Fitch used to be able to dictate a certain image of teen cool … and teens bought in. Now, teens are migrating away from those brands and away from malls.

Nineteen year old Alexandra Korba doesn’t really care about brands. But she loves clothes. Every morning, she wakes up in her dorm at American University, puts on the news, and starts scrolling through fashion blogs.

“While I’m drying my hair or something I’ll go through and look at Pinterest or look at Instagram or something, just to get some inspiration for the day,” she says.

Alex Korba uses Pinterest the way other people use cooking sites like Epicurious. She enters an ingredient.
“Like today I’m wearing a red leather skirt,” she says. “So if I wanted to think of something to pair that with … look, I already have it typed in: burgundy leather skirt, red leather skirt…”

She presses ‘enter’ and tons of outfits pop up, all featuring a red leather skirt. The boho look Korba mimics this day is truly adorbs: floppy tan cardigan, black crop top, black tights, and black knee highs. All different brands.


 Nineteen year old Alexandra Korba shops by piece more than brand. (Kate Davidson)

 Nineteen year old Alexandra Korba shops by piece more than brand. (Kate Davidson/Marketplace)


These days, teens are mixing and matching. They’re increasingly focused on individual fashion items, not brands. And they’re promoting their individual looks on social media. To demonstrate, Korba goes to Instagram and searches #ootd – outfit of the day.

“It’ll come up with … yeah, 17 million posts with that hashtag,” she says.

Those posts are actually millions of cellphone selfies, where young people share their looks and often list the pieces they’re wearing. Some companies also use the #ootd hashtag to promote their items.

Selfies aren’t Korba’s thing and she’s actually kind of floored to discover, roughly, 17 million of them.

“Wow,” she says. “I had no idea until I typed it in just then. But I believe it. I believe it.”

Allen Adamson is managing director of Landor Associates. He helps companies develop brand stories. He says social media now makes it impossible to project those stories in a controlled top-down manner.

“The big change in brand building today is word of eye,” he says. “Everyone has a phone, but that phone is also a camera.”

Plus, the branding universe is exploding.

“Everyone on Facebook and Twitter are becoming more conscious of managing their individual brands. What they project on Facebook is – they are branding themselves,” Adamson says.

So in an era where teenagers are branding themselves, what happens to the actual brands?

Stephanie Wissink is a senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray, specializing in teen retail. She says in the spring of 2006, the three largest dedicated teen retailers -- Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, and Aeropostale -- those 3As represented 35% of teen spending on fashion.

“They now represent 12%,” Wissink says. “The brands that have captured that 20 percentage points difference, have actually been made up of about 25 different brands.”

Add in the growth of online sales and cheap, fast fashion, and you’ve got rough seas for the 3As, which occupy a lot of space in malls.

Wissink surveys thousands of teenagers each year about their brand preferences. She says she used to visit high schools and see teens dressed alike, brand logos displayed. Now the brand dilution is obvious.

“We’ll see women that are wearing $9.99 H&M skinny jeans, and a t-shirt from Forever 21 that was $4.99, and then they’re carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag,” she says.

Sophomore Alex Korba definitely has an eye for street fashion. She’s a contributor to the website College Fashionista. But for her, shopping by piece, not brand, isn’t just about style. She’s on a college budget, with a double major, an internship, and a part-time job.

“I don’t have the funds to go into Urban Outfitters and just walk around the section pulling stuff off hangers if I think I like it,” she says.

She says she has to shop with a mission – one that’s been honed by social media.

About the author

Kate Davidson is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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