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Among young consumers, the primary method to express individuality, status, and a fashionable image has long been through clothing. They can reveal their expertise and awareness of the latest trends or signal their difference from the mainstream based solely on the items they choose to maintain in their wardrobe. Accordingly, teen shoppers have long been a powerfully appealing market for clothing retailers, and they account for around 15 percent of total spending on clothing.

But the appeal is evaporating as teenaged consumers redirect their disposable income to another market that enables them to express themselves even better: smartphones and their related accessories.

Teenage girls text messaging on cell phonesRather than spending their money on the latest fashions in clothing, teenaged shoppers save up to ensure they can afford the latest gadgets and models of their favorite smartphones. The first student in school to have the most recently introduced phone enjoys a cutting-edge image, and those who can afford the highest-end options achieve a sort of status usually obtained through luxury items like expensive watches.

In addition, teenaged consumers rely on phone accessories, especially cases, to express their individuality. From neon colors to glitter to designs emblazoned with fictional characters, the choices for smartphone cases are innumerable, granting a sense of individuality to each user. Furthermore, considering the ubiquity of uses of smartphones, teens signal their ideal self-image every time they check social media, snap a picture, or receive a text from their parents, because in every instance, they show off their unique and specially chosen case.

The clothing retailers that appealed to previous generations of teens, such as Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle, face competition not only for these consumers’ basic attention but also for any money they actually choose to spend on clothing. If they have to have new clothes, modern teenagers often rely on inexpensive fast fashion retailers such as Zara and H&M. In addition, they rely so much on their smartphones that many of them prefer to order clothing from online retailers rather than make a trip to the mall.

The effects of the vast spread of smartphones is not limited to clothing retailers though. For operators in various food industries, this shift in spending has been beneficial. As teens seek out places that offer free WiFi, many fast food and casual eateries are attracting more young patrons. Their meals might only consist of fries and a soda, but they are still spending money in restaurants that they might not have spent in the past.

Surveys of teen consumers suggest that these trends represent their conscious consumption choices, not just a fluke. For example, in a recent focus group, even as the moderator tried to get participants to talk about crop tops, they kept shifting the conversation to emphasize the latest fashions in headphones that were compatible with different phones. In another survey, a high school student explained clearly that a smartphone offers more entertainment and distraction than a pair of jeans ever could. If she had $200 to spend, she would make the smarter investment in a new phone rather than a new coat.

SOURCE: Elizabeth A. Harris and Rachel Abrams, “Plugged-In Over Preppy: Teenagers Favor Tech Over Clothes,” The New York Times, August 27, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com

Discussion Question

What benefits do smartphones offer for teenaged consumers that make them so popular?