Muscle shirts and strategically ripped jeans no longer provide an assured spot for retailers like Hollister and American Eagle Outfitters in the marketplace of what’s cool at an American high school. The social cachet these days involves waving the latest in hand-held technology.
"Clothes aren’t as important to me," said Olivia D’Amico, a 16-year-old from New York, as she shopped at Hollister with her sister and a friend. "Half the time I don’t really buy any brands. I just bought a pair of fake Doc Martens because I don’t really care."
She probably spends more on technology because she likes to "stay connected," she said.
"It’s definitely more exciting for a lot of teenagers to have a new phone that can do lots of cool stuff than clothing," said Nicole Myers, 19, a model in New York who emerged from an Apple store on Monday with a new iPhone that cost about $200. "A phone keeps you much more entertained. It’s a better distraction than clothing."
Analysts and trend-spotters agree that a major shift in teenage trends, and in teenage spending, is underway. John Morris, a retail analyst at BMO Capital Markets, says that his regular focus groups with teenagers about what trends they find most appealing often stray from clothing.
"You try to get them talking about what’s the next look, what they’re excited about purchasing in apparel, and the conversation always circles back to the iPhone 6," he said. "You get them talking about crop tops, you get a nice little debate about high-waist going, but the conversation keeps shifting back."
The teenage apparel sector of retailing, whose sales account for about 15 percent of all apparel sales, according to the NPD Group, is in a deep slump as sales have declined over the last several quarters. Aside from the attention given to tech items like phones, apps and accessories, some longstanding retailers have been hard hit by competition from fast-fashion stores like Forever 21 and H&M, which offer up-to-the-minute trends at low prices. Online shopping has also reduced mall traffic among teenage consumers, and the popularity of Instagram whips fads around so quickly that teenagers are not chasing one enduring fashion item.