All hail the teen dollar

Associated Press

CHICAGO – Murmurs of excitement rippled through the large hotel conference room when the eight special guest panelists filed in. Empty chairs filled and doorways crowded with onlookers. Cell-phone chats ended abruptly. Spectators leaned forward, eager to catch every word.

These were no ordinary panelists to the officials of clothing companies, food giants, media dot-coms and others attending the marketing conference. They were American teen-agers, articulating the consumer habits of a group projected to spend a staggering $155 billion this year.

So they applauded the answers of these Chicago-area high school students, laughed at every attempted joke and flooded them with questions for an hour: Where do you buy things? What books do you like? What’s your favorite band? Do you prefer TV or the Internet?

For these teens and others, the interest in their world by grown-ups is appreciated.

“It’s nice to know my opinion is being paid attention to,” said Silena Dukes, 16, of Bellwood, Ill., who wasn’t on this panel but is nonetheless a contributor to intensifying market research into what makes teens tick. “It’s pretty cool.”

As Americans’ unprecedented prosperity filters down to the next generation, attracting teens’ business has become a Holy Grail for marketers.

“It’s a very influential market,” said Selina Gruber, president of Children’s Market Research Inc. in New York. “Marketers never really paid that much attention to kids, but now they do because it’s becoming their bread and butter.”

The numbers are compelling enough to make any retailer run out and sponsor a Britney Spears concert.

Teenage Research Unlimited, a market research firm in Northbrook, Ill., projects that the 31.6 million Americans ages 12-19 will spend $108 billion of their own money in 2000, along with $47 billion of their families’ funds.

They also account for a disproportionately large share of consumer spending. Households with one or more teen-agers spend $10,000 more per year than those without any. And with parents working more than ever before, teens have assumed greater influence in household decision-making.

Demographics help explain the latest kowtowing to teen tastes: The teen population has grown twice as fast the overall population in the last decade. They’re also easier to reach than ever via the Internet, the biggest marketing boon since the bulk-mail rate.

This surge in “teen power” won’t last forever. The so-called echo boom, an upswing in births as baby boomers had children of their own, faded in the mid-’90s, but that isn’t stopping companies from retooling their sales pitches and strategies to make this group of mostly minors a major target.

“It’s really taken off,” said Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited. “What we’ve seen in the past couple of years is that all companies are re-evaluating their positions to see if there’s a teen component they could add.”

The marketing push pays off for teen-agers in more ways than one.

Simon Chermin, 18, of Westwood, Calif., volunteered for a roundtable discussion on video games. He eventually found himself in such demand that he regularly gives feedback to a half-dozen or so companies. “I consider myself a professional respondent,” he said.

He has done focus groups, taste tests, written reports, live panels, phone interviews and even filmed a video of a day in his life, complete with morning shower.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s a great business. And you get paid,” said Chermin, who enjoys the process so much he had decided to make marketing his college major.

Companies pay as much as $100 for two hours of questioning on a panel, less for written reports. Some even fly regular, outspoken contributors to conferences.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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