Teens not buying into the cybermall

With nearly 8.4 million teens on-line in 1998 (Jupiter NFO Consumer Study), and with that demo averaging about an hour a day on the Net, it's no surprise that retail companies have their antennae raised. Before dashing headlong into the race...
December 1, 1999

With nearly 8.4 million teens on-line in 1998 (Jupiter NFO Consumer Study), and with that demo averaging about an hour a day on the Net, it’s no surprise that retail companies have their antennae raised. Before dashing headlong into the race for e-commerce dollars, however, it is important to look at on- and off-line shopping through the eyes of a teen.

Teen panelists paint quite a different picture of e-commerce than do many e-tail optimists. Nearly all of our teens agreed that safety is a really big deal. ‘I wouldn’t want someone to steal my mom’s credit card number and then start charging all this stuff she’d have to pay for,’ Zak 17.

E-tailers need to emphasize the safety of their sites. To that end, branding is invaluable, as almost all of our teens indicated that they would only make on-line purchases from ‘reliable companies like the Gap.’

Not having a personal credit card presents an additional dilemma for teens. Asking to use their parent’s card is an unattractive option for many reasons. For one thing, most teens pay for their own gear the majority of the time, so asking for their parent’s card is like asking their parents to pay for their purchases. ‘Because I usually buy a lot of my clothes, asking my parents for their credit card doesn’t seem right,’ Carla 16. And if they have to ask their parents to pay, they have to let them essentially peer over their shoulder, inviting tension from both teen and parent. ‘Asking my dad for his card becomes this big thing. He wants to know what I’m going to buy, and I don’t really want to tell him. . . ,’ Joseph 15. Teens want autonomy over their shopping experience. Having to ask permission of their parents for on-line purchases robs them of their independence. Although there are sites that allow kids and teens to have on-line ‘expense’ accounts, the popularity of these sites is questionable. Only one of our panelists knew of their existence, and he was not able to name a specific one.

The marketers who will lead this burgeoning category may well be those who manage both sides of the parent/teen dynamic. It may be worthwhile for marketers to talk directly to the parents, to help teens persuade parents that on-line shopping is the smart way to go.

When it comes to what they buy on the Web, our teens’ choices are best defined by convenience. Buying off the Net means not having to rely on third-party transportation. ‘I beg my mom to take me to the mall, but by the time she gets home and takes me, I only have an hour there,’ Abby 14. Most on-line malls are also able to tap into a much wider variety of merchandise than the local strip mall might have to offer. ‘I bought a beer sign on-line. It came as I expected. I also wouldn’t have ordinarily been able to buy it, because of the lack of stores with beer signs to sell in my area,’ Jason 15.

For e-tailers, this means using relevant communication strategies that stress convenient situations in which buying on-line is preferable.

On the other hand, our teens felt that some items were decidedly inappropriate for on-line purchase. Clothes, for example, ranked highest on our panelists’ list of stuff they would not buy on the Net. Being able to try on the togs is an absolute must. ‘Buying on-line would create more of a hassle for me, because the chance what I buy won’t look quite right is high,’ Rachel 16. Additionally, returning unwanted clothing presents a unique conundrum when shopping on-line. Depending on the site, returning goods can be tricky. ‘If I buy something at, I can return it at the Gap in my mall,’ Sam 16. Not so with sites that seem to have a ‘virtual’ or intangible existence.

Clothing e-tailers need to replicate as closely as possible the reality of trying on clothes, possibly using size charts or cybermodels.

So now we arrive at the crux of what separates on- and off-line shopping. A ‘virtual’ store or mall that exists in the abstract cannot compete in many ways with malls, which shape suburban landscapes. As any teen marketer knows, shopping is about interaction, not transaction. The mall fulfills the teen need for autonomy, allowing them to simulate the grown-up world. For instance, many of our teens reported they enjoy having a ‘client’ relationship with retail staff. ‘I like it when the personnel are friendly. You wouldn’t get that on-line,’ Kelly 14. The mall also fulfills the teen narcissistic fantasy of endless self-indulgence. Stacy 15, sums it up best with, ‘There’s nothing I like better than the mall. . . my arms filled with endless possibilities!’ Finally, there’s the social component of mall-based shopping. ‘Nothing beats the mall,’ says Ashley 14. ‘That’s where my friends and the boys are.’

The Loop is an on-line panel of trendsetting U.S. teens that enables kid and teen ad agency The Geppetto Group to monitor the fast-track world of today’s youth. If you have any questions or subjects you would like to see covered, contact Taylor Cousens, director of The Loop, at 212-462-8143, or by e-mail at

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