Bye, Malls? How Teens Are Actually Shopping Today

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Grace, a 17-year-old self-professed “fashion lover” entering her senior year of high school in Los Angeles, spends five to six hours a day on Instagram. She’s on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, and devotedly watches Carli Bybel’s makeup tutorials on YouTube. Naturally, she would buy all of her clothes online, right?

Wrong.

Though it may come as a surprise, the majority of teenage girls, and more than three in four teenage boys, actually prefer to shop in-store rather than on the web. And, contrary to popular belief that those under 20 would rather do anything online rather than in person, teens still enjoy going to, and shopping at, malls: “The idea that [teens] don’t enjoy physical retail is overblown,” says Neil Saunders, CEO of retail analysis and consultancy firm Conlumino. “You only have to go to an Apple Store and see it’s full of teens. They’re just more selective about the malls they visit and the stores within malls they visit.”

Though surveys indicate that teens aren’t going to the mall in the same numbers they used to, that’s not so much a sign that Generation Z would rather spend all their time at home watching Netflix or sending Snapchats — instead it's evidence that some malls just aren’t set up to appeal to today’s generation. The way most traditional shopping centers are configured is dated: Major department stores like Macy’s, Sears, and J. C. Penney are no longer the main attraction (or, as Saunders puts it more bluntly, “[they're] definitely out of fashion” with the 18-and-under set); Nordstrom, he adds, is one exception.

Sure, the internet might be the obvious reason for the shift from shopping solely at malls, but it also might have to do with the fact that teens are actually more money-conscious than they once were. It would make sense, then, that they utilize e-commerce — just not as most people would expect. When it comes to online shopping, most teens explained that it's reserved for more run-of-the-mill items.
Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
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“Usually, when I shop online, it’s more for things I need for school or other quick things,” says Grace, adding that all of the clothes she’s purchased online to date have proved to be a sizing “disaster.” Patricia Garrett, an 18-year-old incoming college freshman in Rochester, New York, says she used to shop almost exclusively online, but has lately switched to buying most of her clothes in-store. “I find it more reliable,” she explains. “Sometimes, when I order online, the sizing doesn’t come right, so I’ll send it back and go into the store to try it on.” Carmen, a 16-year-old from Ojai, California, echoes that sentiment. “I prefer shopping at malls, because you can try on clothing and see how it works and how it fits.”

Unlike the generation before them, which cut back on how much money they were spending on clothes, teens have no problem dishing out dollars for some new pieces — about 20% of girls’ disposable income goes to apparel (and 15% of boys’, which is more than they spend on video games, cars, and electronics), despite the fact that they've had a difficult time finding jobs since the recession. And though their purchasing power exists, they're not willing to simply throw $100 (or more) away on a pair of jeans at a department store or specialty e-boutique. It's that consciousness that’s helped drive the success of more value-conscious retailers like Forever 21 and H&M, which regularly offer jeans for as little as $10, as well as outlets like T.J. Maxx and Nordstrom Rack. Resale sites/apps like Depop and Poshmark have gained popularity, too, for those unique (and affordable) pieces you just can't find at the mall.

Perhaps the biggest difference between teens today and Millennial teens, though, is how keen they are to cultivate their own personal style. “Brands like American Eagle and Aeropostale were about belonging to a tribe,” Saunders says, giving us Mean Girls-luncheon-style flashbacks. “[Teens once] bought into it for a sense of belonging, but the younger generation isn’t as interested in belonging, not through products, anyway.” That's why many gravitate toward thrift stores, secondhand shops like Goodwill, or trend-forward retailers like Urban Outfitters or Zara.

Social media, too, obviously plays a role in the appeal of the anti-mall store, as well as that of designer beauty brands and fragrances. “[Teens] are seeing Givenchy and Chanel and becoming more educated, their taste quite refined,” explains Sarah Owen, a trend forecaster at WGSN. Celebrities like Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Cara Delevingne, and Gigi Hadid are major trendsetters, she adds, as are various social-media personalities (particularly on Instagram and YouTube) and TV shows like Pretty Little Liars. “If I’m on Instagram and I see one of my favorite celebrities wearing something, that will influence me to buy for sure,” Patricia says, noting she recently went into an Adidas store to buy a pair of Stan Smiths after seeing them all over the internet.
Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Like Stan Smiths, more casual pieces like Lululemon leggings and Nike sneakers have become among the most coveted must-haves — in fact, teens now spend more on activewear than jeans, which is a huge shift from previous generations. But they’re not wearing these clothes to go for a run, necessarily (hello, athleisure!). Patricia, who has purchased a number of athletic leggings from Lululemon over the years, doesn't actually wear them for exercise. “My workout clothes I usually buy cheaper quality, just because I usually save my Lululemon leggings for school and when I’m going out and doing things,” she says.

That’s not a flash-in-the-pan trend, though — it’s the new norm. By 2020, 40% of American workers are expected to be employed on a freelance or temp basis, meaning the lines between work and casual wear will continue to blur. “A lot of [today’s] teens will therefore be working from home,” Owen points out. “So there’s definitely reason to believe athleisure, sweatpants, and yoga pants will increase in popularity. If I was a brand, I’d be putting money behind that.”

It may seem like a contradiction, then, that teens want to develop an individual style while also wanting to pull inspiration from celebrities. But at the end of the day, it's all about access: the ability to be more of a Gigi than a Regina George; to set your sights higher than the popular girl in high school. It's aspirational but accessible. And that's why their variety of shopping methods (in store, online, and via social media) makes sense.

Though it may seem like it from the outside, malls aren't losing popularity. Their purpose in the lives of teenagers is simply shifting. Whereas those of the Millennial generation may have made after-school trips to score the latest polo shirt or jean shorts from the store du jour, Gen Z is more selective about what they need. But until online retailers can solve the myriad of fit issues that occur (and any other complications that come from e-commerce), brick-and-mortar stores (and malls as a whole) are here to stay, whether as a social gathering space or a destination for essentials. And that's something that teens, regardless of the decade they're living in, can agree on.

Fighting for inclusivity, diversity, and gender-neutrality, Generation Z is poised to turn the fashion world on its head. Get to know today's most influential teenagers with #TheZList, our week-long celebration of under-20 visionaries changing how we think about style.

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