Broke Teenagers May Be Wearing Old Fashions in New School Year

When much of the public thinks about back-to-school sales we imagine forlorn kids beings prodded by their parents down supermarket aisles that offer the latest in educational gadgetry, classroom essentials, and overpriced organizers.

Teenagers, however, have their own–and very high stakes–back-to-school rituals that are less focused on education and more focused on (even obsessed with) fashion. Being cool in high school is paramount. Nothing else matters. And for decades corporate America has been ruthlessly efficient in fulfilling and cultivating the superficial needs of teenagers who would do or pay just about anything for a pair of the coolest shoes or the trendiest jacket. The ongoing recession, however, is changing all of that.

Brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle Outfitters are struggling not only because the parents of these teenagers are having a difficult time making ends meet, but the kids themselves are broke. It’s easy to think of the recession as an adult problem, but many teenagers who relied on steady jobs for spending money are learning a critical lesson in the value of money.

Most adults would agree this is an overdue and healthy development. But let’s not forget the societal pressures of being a teenager. After all, they learned to be superficial from us. It’s difficult to preach to your children about the importance of budgeting when you’re holding a $4 cup of coffee. Nevertheless, as we all learn to do more with less, many back-to-school brands are finding themselves in the same predicament as their customers: How do you live with less money?

As PR professionals, this question is particularly intriguing. Money does strange things to public perception.

Just what can brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle Outfitters do to stop the bleeding and reconnect with the teen market? Is this entirely an economic issue that can only be resolved by lowering prices, cutting overhead costs and somehow maintaining some semblance of quality? Or, instead of encouraging teen customers to purchase several mid-list items in a retails store, perhaps they should push them to buy one high-list item. In the halls of high schools those items reign supreme.

Also, when money is tight, these types of brands to tend to cut back in marketing and PR expenditures. As industry experts, we may not agree with this strategy. Ahem. Or is this, as many believe, a natural correction to a wayward and overly debt-ridden culture that is finally learning to curtail its dependency on superficial things?