Selling to the tween girl market

A gaggle of girls, all under five feet tall, move through the chartreuse-colored store. They call to each other over the music, lounge on the couches, giggle, try on clothes and look at nail polish. It's like a public slumber party....
April 1, 1999

A gaggle of girls, all under five feet tall, move through the chartreuse-colored store. They call to each other over the music, lounge on the couches, giggle, try on clothes and look at nail polish. It’s like a public slumber party. And, in a way, that’s what it’s meant to be. This is Chickaboom, a store just for girls between the ages of approximately eight and 13, located on a busy street in the north end of Toronto.

The year-and-a-half-old store (the brainchild of Nancy Dennis, a former buyer of men’s and women’s fashions) follows the lead of most women’s clothing stores. Its main stock-in-trade consists of fashionable clothes and accessories. Hot brands include Buffalo, Hollywood and Dex, with plans for Chickaboom’s own label to make up about 70% of the product mix. But that’s where the similarities end. If anything, says Dennis, it’s more like a candy store: chaotic and fun. And the candy in this store runs the gamut from clothes to hair accessories, books and cosmetics, such as nail polish, hair glitter and scented lip gloss.

Numbers bode well for retailers serving these girls. The U.S. Bureau of the Census estimates their population at over 11 million as of November 1998. A Roper Starch Worldwide youth report, conducted in 1998, found that 43% of children between the ages of eight and 12 that were surveyed had US$5 to US$15 spending money per week. Nonetheless, properly serving this group is testing the creative mettle of retailers.

Dennis and her competitors across North America have cottoned on to something that marketers in many other retail categories have implemented-the store as an entertainment venue. The difference here being that clothes, hair, nail polish and books are all part of the entertainment.

Diane Nye, VP of marketing for the Columbus, Ohio-based chain Limited Too, which caters to the same market as Chickaboom, concurs. ‘What I would tell you is that the shopping experience is much more about entertainment and theater. It’s a little bit more dramatic than what you would find someplace else.’ Limited Too, a spin-off of the popular chain Limited, which is aimed at teens and young professionals, is currently comprised of 319 mall-based stores. The chain stocks its own label brand of clothes, accessories and personal care items that, says Nye, takes cues from the junior market and what’s working there. But she stresses, the clothes are styled appropriately for girls’ body types.

Limited Too goes a step further with its entertainment. The stores sport a wall-projected light show, photo booths that snap pictures of best friends and then turns out stickers of the image, and telephones located throughout the stores that allows girls who have moved out of sight of one another to consult.

While Chickaboom may be a little less high-tech on that front, Dennis has been savvy with her direct marketing. The sold-out Spice Girls concert resulted in an in-store party. The angle was: if you couldn’t get tickets for the Spice Girls, you can come and have a party with us. The promotion drew scores of girls who hung out at the store and lip-synched in the window. Birthday mailings also generate a huge response, says Dennis. A database keeps track of customers’ birthdays, and the store mails out CAN$5 gift certificates to the girls. ‘It’s part of our relationship marketing,’ she says. ‘It’s a big deal. Mom will get mail and bills and throw away stuff, but this little girl isn’t getting any mail, so when she gets something from Chickaboom, she knows it’s a good thing.’

Limited Too’s marketing plans don’t include direct mailings, but its frequent buyer program has been effective, says Nye. ‘Two-punch Tuesday’ gives shoppers two punches on their frequent buyer cards, and a ‘two buck’ promo gives a discount of US$2 on the next US$50 purchase.

‘That happens during selected times of the year,’ says Nye. ‘Times that are important to them, when they need to be buying things,’ such as back to school. Still, there aren’t many nine-year-old girls who can slap down US$50 for a new outfit-that’s where mom and dad come in. But what do these stores do to soothe parents who are concerned that they have mini-Spice Girls in the making? Nye and her staff are tuned in to the discrepancies in tastes and attitudes between parents and daughters. ‘Mom is still involved in the decision-making process at some level,’ she says. ‘Whether she is actually there [in the store] to say, `no you can’t have it,’ or if the girl brings it home and it’s not acceptable, it’s going to get returned, and we’re sensitive to that dynamic.’

As for Chickaboom, ‘we market to them [the girls], not to the mom,’ says Dennis. ‘It’s very much their store. My staff talks to them and confirms with the mom, but it’s a win-win. Anyone who comes to Chickaboom is really there because they understand what the concept is. The mom, I won’t say loses control, but there’s a real symbiotic thing that happens in the fitting room, and it’s kind of a happy thing.’

As for the future of these two operations, things look bright. Chickaboom hit some problems last year when it opened a second Toronto location at one of Canada’s busiest and most expensive malls. It went into receivorship. The store is now on a more solid footing. Dennis stresses that the problems stemmed from a textbook case of overexpansion. ‘The hiccup had nothing to do with the validity of the market,’ she says. She now has two partners, each of whom own their own clothing chains, and who take care of Chickaboom’s operations, leaving Dennis to oversee the marketing and merchandising, as well as the reopening of the second location. Limited Too isn’t sitting still either. This year will see the opening of 40 more stores across the U.S.

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