NEW YORK (AP) - Stores and manufacturers always try to court kids during the all-important back-to-school season, but now that engagement means interactivity, not a flier with coupons or a catalog full of smiling children clutching notebooks.
Kids want shopping to be fun, and they want clothes and shopping experiences with personality. Today's class of kids doesn't want anything cookie-cutter.
And the industry is responding with creativity: Ralph Lauren Childrenswear, for example, has drafted an online storybook that allows young shoppers to choose the outfits off the backs of their favorite characters. The American Eagle-owned 77 Kids, which launched online in 2008, now has new brick-and-mortar stores with life-size MP3 players that allow kids to play DJ. J.C. Penney gave away shopping sprees to popular "haulers" - teens who show off their shopping hauls on video - if they'd come into its stores and report back about the merchandise to their loyal fans.
Younger kids might not be plugged in yet, but they still want to play. A new T-shirt brand called SwitchittZ provides interchangeable, easy-to-attach pieces - sort of like patches - with a variety of characters, props and scenery so kids can tell different stories with their shirts each time they wear them.
"For the past few seasons, we've been talking about interactive clothing and toylike apparel, everyday costumes - like tutus, hoodies with ears or a tail in the back. It's all about using imagination for kids," says Khalym Schell, children's editor at trend analysis company Stylesight. "All this makes kids excited to buy clothes. And how you sell a garment is winning the parent over and winning the kid over. It's the product and the experience."
She adds: "It really makes sense. The market had been slow. Hitting up kids is the best way to bump up sales."
"Back to school has become a bigger event," agrees David Lauren, senior vice president of advertising, marketing and communications for Polo Ralph Lauren. "It's its own form of a holiday. It's an opportunity to do something new and different, but there's also more competition, though, and you have to think out of the box."
The original thought at Ralph Lauren was to do an online fashion show, following an existing successful model for the young adult line Rugby, but that didn't necessarily capture the "family spirit" that the children's line aims for, David Lauren explains. Hence "The RL Gang: A Fantastically Amazing School Adventure," which features a really well-dressed cast of characters.
There's a story to be enjoyed whether or not a purchase is made, he says, and it's intended as a parent-child bonding experience. "Parents are always trying to understand how their children think. We think this is something parents will enjoy and can share with their child."
And click to purchase a pony-logo sweater at the same time.
Annie St. John, a soon-to-be high school senior in Michigan, already bought cardigans and skinny jeans for the new season, using the J.C. Penney $1,000 gift card the company gave her in exchange for her sharing her purchases in her popular "haul" YouTube videos.
She says she shopped on her terms, knowing that other teens rely on her to be discerning and informative when she shares what's in her bags with the camera. "I never end up putting together a whole outfit. I find what I like and I grab it. ... If someone else is watching me, they might see something I like and think it'll work for them, too, but I also talk about quality and price. I brag about how little I spend. I mostly do haul videos to help lower the cost for a lot girls," says St. John.
"There are kids who are influencers and care about what's on trend, and other kids emulate them," adds JCP's chief marketing officer Mike Boylson. "The thing about the haul videos is teens go on shopping trips and videotape themselves shopping. They are the next-generations bloggers. They are becoming fashion authorities with huge followings."
Consumer-generated content is a must now in the marketplace, he says, and in no demographic is it more important than with teens. "We know consumers, especially teens, rely on their friends. They trust their friends more than marketers, and that is more genuine and effective."
It is taking marketers at big retailers a little time to adjust to the new dynamic, Boylson says with a laugh. "We put things in logical order, but teens want to mix and match and put together unique looks. They're not bound by a set trend statement or rules," he says.
Kids are taking fashion cues from movies, TV, magazines and, just like any hip parents, from the street, says Betsy Schumacher, chief merchandising officer of 77 Kids. That has made them very savvy shoppers who want to look cool and express individualism.
At the 77 Kids stores, the pint-size consumers can pose for photos that they can customize with graffiti-style messages, or have outfits beamed onto their likeness in a special mirror that also will introduce them to some animated characters.
Even the little ones want to have a say in their wardrobe - and the two moms who came up with the SwitchittZ encourage that creativity and the pride children feel showing off their look to others.
"I think they (kids) absolutely are making a statement about themselves. Younger kids are showing growing independence by making their own wardrobe choices and also communicating a bit of their personality and style to others," says Angela Cosentino, co-creator.
What's likely to come next with all these fashion fans - young and old - is to get them involved in the product development process, allowing them input to come up with an assortment a retailer will already know they'll like, says JCP's Boylson.