NEW YORK -- For the trendiest back-to-school fashions like wide-leg athletic pants and hooded sweaters, 15-year-old Susan Rosenbaum won't be heading to the mall.
Instead, she'll be checking out some of today's hip new teen catalogs, filled with the coolest styles and brands of the moment.
"It's awesome," said Susan, a rising sophomore in suburban Chicago. "It's all the latest stuff that's at the mall, but you don't have to leave your house."
Just five years ago, there weren't any catalogs catering to teens. Now, they're the rage, a fashion bible for teens across the country, especially for those living in out-of-the-way places who don't have shopping nearby.
About a dozen catalogs are now on the market, many coming from well-known retailers like Nordstrom, Lands' End and Wet Seal, which see big sales potential from the children of wealthy baby boomers.
And many of these catalogs aren't just for the girl next-door. There are those that cater to overweight teens as well as boys, who are learning the art of shopping just like their female peers.
"The opportunity is huge when it comes to teen catalogs," said James Palczynski, a retail analyst at Ladenburg Thalmann & Co. Inc. "Teens want hip, urban fashions, but many teens don't have access to them. So, teen catalogs are bringing those styles to an audience that reaches across the nation."
Since malls were first built, they've been the stomping ground for teens, a place to shop and socialize with friends. Most marketers assumed the mall was the only place where teens wanted to do their shopping.
No one considered that teens, like their parents who juggle busy lives, would enjoy the ease and convenience of shopping by catalog. But today girls have the luxury of putting on a Hanson CD and paging through the magazine-like catalogs.
The transformation began in 1994 when two Yale grads launched delia's, a New York-based catalog catering to women ages 10 to 24. Teens immediately took to its trendy styles, pulled directly from places like MTV and Seventeen magazine.
Sales at delia's topped $113 million last year, and are expected to jump above $170 million this year. It receives up to 7,000 calls a day from teens who want to get on its mailing list.
"These kids have access to a lot of money, but they just never had any catalogs to choose from," said Stephen Kahn, president and chief executive officer of delia's.
The success of delia's not only showed that teens liked shopping from catalogs, but also that they had money and were ready to spend again -- a big turnaround from the early 1990s, when many teen-oriented mall stores closed due to tepid demand.
Today, companies are scurrying to tap this booming market. U.S. Census Bureau data shows the teen population will top 26 million this year, and will not peak until 2010, when it reaches nearly 30 million.
"These are the kids of baby boomers," said Elliott Ettenberg, chairman and CEO of Bozell Retail Advertising in New York. "These kids are getting allowances that are equivalent to what people used to get paid and many are working to augment those dollars."
"They have a significant amount of money to walk around with and they want to spend it," he said.
Among the new catalogs is just nikki, owned by the popular teen accessories retailer Claire's Stores. Launched in February, the company mails a new edition every eight weeks, filled with trendy girls' clothes as well as some jewelry and shoes. The catalog is also available at 1,600 Claire's stores.
"This is a market that is fickle. Teens are interested in new things all the time. If you stay still, you will be boring and they will want to go shop somewhere else," said Brian Doyle, president and chief operating officer of just nikki.
Also recently joining the catalog business is Wet Seal, the teen retailing giant that's found in malls nationwide, and Lands' End, the cataloger best known for its khakis and cotton turtlenecks.
While fashion is the basis of most teen catalogs, many also resemble magazines, filled with articles about school, friends, relationships and socializing. Some even charge subscription fees.
For $10 a year, teens can order Abercrombie & Fitch's A&F Quarterly, part catalog, part magazine which combines pages of sweaters and khakis with articles about college life and partying.
Abercrombie came under fire last month for including recipes to make mixed drinks in its most recent catalog. Under pressure from critics, it removed the pages from the remaining catalogs and will include articles in future issues on being responsible with alcohol.
Nordstrom also includes pages of editorial content in its teen catalog, BP Style, which is periodically inserted into the popular YM teen magazine.
"Marketers are realizing that people are making their brand decisions at a much younger age, and catalogs are an easy way to reach these kids," said Jane Rinzler, president of the market research firm Youth Intelligence.
But many catalogers also realize that success takes more than just sending out a booklet of good-looking clothes. The same energy that goes into picking the fashions also is put into developing mailing lists with the right demographics for their merchandise.
The Internet also is an outlet for teen catalogers, who know a presence online can get them noticed by technologically savvy teens.
Retail analyst Mr. Palczynski of Ladenburg Thalmann expects at least 25 percent of all teen catalog sales to be over the Internet in the next five years.
"This is a game of technology, research and analysis, and then comes the clothes," said Steven Lubinski, CEO of new teen catalog Airshop. "The key is the database, building a list of who will even be interested in looking at your product."
While still new to most, these catalogs are getting rave reviews from teens and their parents. The teens favor the cool fashions, and their parents are pleased to avoid trips to the mall.
Mother of three Ellen Shajnfeld is thankful that most of her family's shopping can be done from home.
"For so long, there was an empty space between kids and adults clothing," said the Rego Park, N.Y., resident who loves the new teen line from Lands' End. "I hate going from store to store looking for clothes for them, but there wasn't many other places to find what you needed. Finally, that's changing."
As for Susan Rosenbaum, she's getting ready to go back to school. Among the items on her shopping list: a simple jumper dress from the delia's catalog.
"I still will go to the mall," she said, but admits that she likes "shopping from catalogs better. It's easier and they always have my size."
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