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Published: Monday, 10/11/2010

Clothing stores aiming at 'tweens'


ORLANDO, Fla. - Clothing stores aimed at teenagers and twentysomethings are expanding their reach, trying to hook customers barely out of kindergarten with their own lines.

Teen retailer Aeropostale last year opened its first P.S. from Aeropostale for kids 7 to 12. It has opened almost 40 of them so far and is expected to have 45 by year's end.

Aeropostale calls P.S. "a logical extension" of its brand. It hopes to capture some of the multibillion-dollar preteen or "tween" market, which has been largely the domain of mass merchandisers.

Other youth-oriented chains have also begun making tinier clothing. Forever 21 this year launched a new line, called HTG81, for children 6 to 14, available in select stores.

While Aeropostale clothes have a casual feel, HTG81 offers trendier styles.

American Eagle Outfitters has even reached toward the toddler set with its 77kids line for children 2 to 10. American Eagle launched 77kids in 2008 online and has a few stores open, mostly in the Northeast.

Branding experts say that as youngsters get more sophisticated, it makes sense that growth-hungry retail companies would target them.

"Little kids are so status-conscious about clothing now, more than ever," Orlando-based branding strategist Eli Portnoy said. "It was a natural evolution for young college, teenage brands - 'Why not go after them younger and get them hooked into our brands?'"

Nationally, $13.4 billion was spent nationwide on teen clothing over the past year, according to market-research firm NPD Group.

"These larger companies …realize it's predominantly an untapped market," said Maria Bailey, who runs a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based marketing firm.

But it's a market that's been primed to shop, she said.

"They've been dressing their penguins on Club Penguin or their Webkinz online," she said. "You put them in a shopping mall, they've got that behavior of 'I love to shop.'"

But reaching out to the elementary and middle school market has its pitfalls.

For one thing, Mr. Portnoy said, designers have to make sure they don't alienate their original customers, who might not "like the idea that their younger siblings are wearing the same branded goods."

Aeropostale's clothes for young children, for example, mimic the original brand's casual style, but many pieces distinguish themselves by displaying a P.S. logo.

And the products will have to be priced right. Abercrombie & Fitch's kids' stores, which have been around for years and feature higher-end clothes that the company resisted discounting through much of the economic downturn, have suffered sales declines.

Abercrombie kids generated $343.1 million in sales in 2009, down from $471 million in 2007. Abercrombie had more success during the middle of the decade, when its children's sales grew by double digits - far ahead of a 5 percent growth rate in general kids' apparel, according to Trefis, a stock-analysis Web site. Hurt by the economic downturn, the children's clothing market should start growing again, Trefis predicts.

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