The scramble for the teenage dollar

There’s $100 million a year—or more—burning holes in our high-school kids’ jeans. Here’s how the merchants are out-hustling each other to cash in on the market that just grew up

JOHN CLARE September 14 1957

The scramble for the teenage dollar

There’s $100 million a year—or more—burning holes in our high-school kids’ jeans. Here’s how the merchants are out-hustling each other to cash in on the market that just grew up

JOHN CLARE September 14 1957

For years teenagers have been regarded with loving perplexity and occasional alarm by nervous outsiders. Statisticians have run them through computing machines; sociologists, amateur and professional, have run them down and some observers, who seem to think of a pair of blue jeans as being roughly the equivalent of an SS uniform, show an inclination to run for the nearest exit.

But now teenagers have been discovered by a group of friends who think they are earl, ivy, cool and even the most. To put it simply these new friends think teenagers are joe lovely. For the word has got out that young people are loaded and while they are not throwing their money around like junior Jim Bradys they aren't stuffing it into any abandoned tea cosies either. Except for the few youngsters who go through a miserly stage that worries their parents, today's teenagers are spending their new wealth in a way that makes them important customers.

Once they were regarded as a modest but steady market for such commodities as soda pop and bikes. Some stores set up junior councils to act as advisors and work as clerks with the idea that they and their friends would keep coming to the shop when they grew up to be serious shoppers. That time has come ahead of schedule on the crest of a boom and a wave of war babies who will hit the teens and the market place with rising authority over the next ten years.

Teenage spending in Canada has already reached a hundred million dollars a year, according to a survey conducted among a hundred and fifty thousand high-school students in Toronto. Montreal and Edmonton. The survey was sponsored by Canadian High News, a weekly newspaper for students with a circulation of about thirty thousand. To many observers of the growing teenage market this spending figure is low even though it is confined, as is the scope of this article, to high-school students and excludes those young people who have left school at the legal age and gone to work. In the United States a more comprehensive survey indicated that teenagers in that country are spending nine billions a year and will be spending fourteen billions by 1965 if business stays brisk. Merchants who sell in this market feel that the Canadian figure could be doubled or tripled and still legitimately represent the teenage contribution to the economy as consumers. As in the U. S., their spending is expected to increase greatly, probably to twice the present amount, between 1951 and 1971.

Canada in 1955 had 1.6 million young people between the ages of 15 and 19; in I960 the figure will be 1.47 millions, but by 1965 it will be up to 1.9 millions. The rise, fall, and rise again in the rate follows the family pattern of the war years, with many marriages in the early years, the departure of thousands of men overseas in the middle years, and their return home by 1945 to add to their families.

The slow flowering of the love affair between business and the teenagers has some of the classic lineaments of the theatrical situation in which a storekeeper discovers the pest he was about to throw out on the street is really an eccentric millionaire. For all their strange talk and outlandish clothes teenagers are as welcome as a couple of Grey Cup tickets these days.

Canadian business has, for the most part, been slower to make a special pitch to the new customers than merchants in the U. S. But businessmen are constantly being nudged by communiques such as the one issued by J. K. Edmonds. an economist writing in The Financial Post, who said: “The businessman who wants a bonanza in 1965 should start planning now to appeal to the hi-fi rather than the high chair set.” And Eugene Gilbert, who runs a marketing service for advertisers in the U. S. and calls himself the George Gallup of the teenagers, recently said: “The advertiser who touches a responsive chord in youth can generally count on the parents to finally succumb to the purchase of the product. Since youth is graced with unparalleled resiliency and buoyancy parents generally have little resistance or protection against youth’s bombardments. Thus, with the parents rendered helpless, it becomes evident that youth is the market!”

In addition to sounding like a general planning to soften up an invasion beachhead. Gilbert has put his finger on a wide and as yet unmeasured area of buying influence that reaches far beyond the teenagers’ own expenditures. Jim McEwen, a Toronto car dealer, provided a glimpse of this new power wielded by the young when he told of a man and his wife who came to his showroom to pick out a car. The selection of the model was made and the deal appeared to be completed. But wait.

“Now.” said the wife. “That’s all we can do until Judy sees it.” Judy was their seventeen-year-old daughter, and they wouldn’t think of buying a car until she had a chance to offer her opinion on the color scheme.

Judy may wield more influence than most teenagers in most families; her power is felt in the buying of food, clothing and many major family items. Part of this influence may stem from the changing pattern of family life which permits the discussion of family purchases. Some of it may come from the fact that some parents dislike saying “No” — because they have to rule negatively on cigarettes, liquor, late hours and other disciplinary matters, they welcome a chance to give their children their way in such matters as the choice of colors for the family car.

But, for the man who glumly accepts the estimate that women control up to eighty-five percent of all family buying in North America, these signs of the growing economic strength of their children must be chilling news. The day may come when he will have to keep his hatband size in code so there will be at least one item he can buy all by himself.

What kind of money have teenagers got, as individuals, to spend? These figures also taken from the High News survey, indicate that their income is made up of allowances from their parents (34 percent), and money earned after school and during the holidays (66 percent). The average weekly income for students between 12 and 19 is, for boys, $6.61 and for girls, $5.24. The highest income recorded by the survey was $12.58 for boys, 16 to 19, in Toronto.

If this figure sounds high remember it is an average. A strong high-school boy can make a man’s wage, sometimes more than his father earns, at a summertime job. One youngster working on the DEW line earned two hundred dollars a week in his last summer at high school. Even weekend and after-school jobs can pay twenty dollars and more.

What kind of merchandise do they buy with their own money? Clothes are the biggest single item in their budgets, but when it comes to a major purchase like a winter coat their parents will put up the money.

A quarter of all teenagers have a typewriter, and it may be significant that their favorite is a make that beams a special appeal to high-school students, suggesting they will get better marks if they work on a keyboard. Almost eighty percent of them, the High News survey found, own watches and the rest are going to get one as soon as they can.

Sixty percent of all teenage boys and girls own bicycles, but the bike rack has been pushed to the corner of the parking lot at many Canadian high schools. Except in those cases where a boy’s father buys a car and presents it to him most car deals are for secondhand autos shared by two or more young owners. Unless they have been able to save the money from their summer jobs they still need an adult co-signer if they buy the car on terms. But these restrictions haven't kept school parking lots from filling up with students’ cars.

Almost seventy percent have a bank account and most teenagers have a regular system of saving. Sixty percent have cameras.

They drink three bottles of pop a week, eat two candy bars (boys prefer Oh Henry; girls Sweet Marie), buy one record at about ninety cents for a 45rpm disc and up to ninety-eight cents for a 78. If they live in Western Canada or the Maritimes their pop tunes will cost them a little more.

The girls own four to ten sweaters each (one girl whose father was in the business had twenty-seven cashmere sweaters) while boys own an average of two to four. Teenagers are big users of cosmetics such as lipsticks. One shampoo company reported a jump in sales when they changed their advertising theme to one they hoped would appeal to teenagers.

“We used a Hollywood pitch, urging them to make their hair as lovely as the stars’, and it’s increased our sales. We always knew that young girls wash their hair more than anyone, probably because their hair is oilier when it’s young, but this increase has been fantastic, said the agency representative who handled the advertising campaign.

How are teenagers handling their new buying power? What kind of shoppers are they? Are they prey to every passing fad or have they learned to shop for values? What kind of pitches are being made to woo the dollars from their billfolds into a particular cash register?

Maybe it’s because no one in his right mind throws snowballs at Santa Claus, but merchants as a group think these young people are smart shoppers. A woman might come into a shoe store and say she wants “something in white.” Half an hour and twenty boxes later she may still not have narrowed the choice between a Cuban or a spike heel and she may be talking wistfully about black patent pumps. But teenagers have usually pre-shopped their purchases. They know — from observing what the gang is wearing, from reading their favorite fashion magazine (for girls Seventeen is an authority on clothes), or from watching the clothes being shown on television or the movies—exactly what they want. All the clerk has to do is provide the right size. They usually know the color they must have.

One clerk described their crisp no-nonsense shopping technique this way: “They know what the kids are wearing and that’s what they want. You’re wasting your time to try and sell them on anything else. They’re like finicky rich people when they shop and I guess that isn't far from the truth. After all they have everything found—a place to stay, meals, schooling—and the money they bring here to spend is their own. They aren’t going to throw it away.”

“We have more trouble with the parents than we have with the kids,” said one shoe clerk. “Fathers seem to be the worst. They worry whether the shoes will wear well and if the heels aren’t too high to be comfortable.”

Mothers, who seem to remember more clearly what it was like to be young, are much easier to get along with, he said.

Most teenagers would prefer to shop by themselves unless they are buying a big item like a winter coat; then they’ll ask one of their parents to come along as an advisor. They will bring friends along if they are picking up a pair of nylons but rarely do they want them around if they are buying a dress or some larger item. Boys seem to like no one around except the clerk when they are making a purchase.

Eaton’s thought they were well aware of the vagaries of the teenage shopper until they stocked a short coat they called a band box. They thought it would appeal to boys who rode bikes because of the freedom of action it gave their legs, but the boys showed no interest. So the store moved the buttons to the left side and sent some of the coats to the girls’ department. They drew another blank. But, they discovered, girls were going to the boys’ department to buy the male model. Anxious to save them a trip, the store moved the boys’ coats with the buttons on the right side to the girls' department. Sales picked up but not in the girls’ shop. They continued to slip into the boys’ department to buy the male version.

Merchants with goods to sell to teenagers have made other discoveries about their customers. They have found out, for instance, that they don’t like to be talked down to. At the age of five they might conceivably run from the TV set, as instructed, actually screaming, “Buy me a giant thrift box of Sugarnuts, Mumsy. They're the gee-whizziest, by actual test." But when they are older they want to be treated like young adults—which they are, for they enter that world, economically at least, at an early age these days. One Canadian soft-drink company, under the mistaken impression that teenagers talk that way all the time, mounted a series of advertisements in which the message was in jive talk. The product was groovy and it was cool in more than the usual ways. They won’t say whether or not the campaign was a success, but they have a new advertising manager, a new sales manager and they have changed advertising agencies. Their ads are once more beamed to young people, but they are told, in the same tone of voice that is used to persuade adults, that the product is refreshing and delicious.

Elvis glows at night

What makes an item a fad or a flop with teenagers? Merchants and promoters wish they knew, and often when they think they have the answer this discriminating and sometimes fickle teenage market just refuses to react.

A fad like the Elvis Presley industry, which drew an estimated twenty million dollars from teenagers’ pockets in the U. S. and Canada last year, is fairly easy to plot. A star gets a name with the youngsters and then, under agile and shrewd management, proceeds to cash in on it by selling not only such obvious items as records but unlikely merchandise like lipsticks or pictures of Elvis that glow in the dark for an hour after the fans have climbed into bed. These will sell for two dollars.

If Canadian manufacturers are right in their judgment, girls’ shirts with monogrammed cuffs will be one of this fall’s clothing fads for teenagers. This one started in a Long Island high school at the end of last term when a girl who was one of the acknowledged leaders tried the woven initials as a stylish touch. The idea spread to other schools in the area. Manufacturers picked it up and it spread to the U. S. at large. Now it’s on the way into the Canadian market.

Often these new styles are launched with a flurry of magazine and TV promotion. “Skorts,” a cross between shorts and a skirt, were presented in this way for the first time and it looks as though they are going to catch on in Canada as well as the U. S.

Fads imported from the U. S. usually arrive a little bit late, which should but doesn't make matters simple for Canadian storekeepers. Not all the fads take. For instance, white jeans for girls were big in the U. S. a couple of years ago but made no impression on Canadian youngsters. A Canadian manufacturer who made hats in school colors, copying a U.S. fad, found himself with a brightly colored flop on his hands.

White bucks (buckskin shoes) have been popular for school and informal wear by both boys and girls for some years. They had their birth as a fad in the eastern universities of the U. S. a decade ago, about the time saddle shoes were getting a foothold at girls' schools like Bryn Mawr. When the high-school students adopted them for their own, one manufacturer assumed they would insist on them being dirty, so he sold them ready-soiled. The Ivy League tradition of elegance had called for soiled bucks. But high-school crowds insist that their white bucks be white, so he had to tidy them up before he could sell them.

Pat Boone, incidentally, who wears them himself, has probably done as much for white bucks as Prince Philip did for cigars when he broke with tradition and lit one at the state dinner at the Louvre during the royal visit last spring. Naturally, manufacturers are only too anxious to have movie and television stars wear their product before the cameras even if it doesn’t get a plug. In Pat Boone’s movie Bernadine, he and his colleagues drink Cokes throughout the film.

It didn't take Pepsi-Cola long to counter with a plug of their own in Gary Cooper's current picture Love in the Afternoon, in which he plays an executive of the soft-drink company. The soda-pop firms are not the only ones who maintain a lobby for the purpose of getting their product mentioned in movies and on radio and television. Even Canada itself, through a semi-official public-relations apparatus known as the Canadian Co-operation Project, waits diligently on Hollywood to try to get the next picture made here, or at least to get Canada mentioned in it.

When is a style a fad?

But sometimes a manufacturer or designer will get his ideas from television or the movies rather than plant his creation with them. Calypso blouses were inspired by the West Indian musical invasion and the popularity of such singers as Harry Belafonte. The frilly blouses were never highly popular with Canadian teenagers but a variation on the same elaborate theme, with fewer frills and smaller sleeves, known as a sissy blouse, did score with our young set and promises to become a standard item like blue jeans or sloppy joes.

Before a style can reach the stature of a fad, and therefore a must, teenagers want the assurance that “everyone is wearing it.” This would seem to pose an insoluble problem of chicken-and-egg proportions but what usually happens is that the five or six leaders in the school community will take the plunge, whether it be sissy blouses or blue jeans, and follow the U. S. style. From then on the fad is as secure as any fad can be, and that is pretty secure when you are dealing with teenagers because they buy for distance. They haven't got the money to switch their styles as frequently as adults and they change, as a group, slowly.

Al Capp, the cartoonist of L'il Abner, probably had a great deal to do with spreading the popularity of zoot suits by dressing some of his comic-strip characters in strides and wide-brimmed hats and decking them out with hawser-like watch chains.

Strides, however, are in bad repute at the moment because of the company they have been keeping. Most teenagers shrink from wearing any style that has been popularized by the hard-rocks or the rowdies.

Mad pants, patterned after toreador pants but decorated with drawing much after the manner of a John Held Jr. character's yellow slicker from the Twenties, were tabbed for stardom but got nowhere in Canada despite a vogue in the U. S. The picture magazines which make teenage fashions a matter of continuing concern in their pages gave a fine sendoff to T-shirts decorated with reek-rack braid. They didn't get past the rack in Canada.

So far the national or broad appeal to Canadian teenagers has not been so noticeable as in the U. S., where one cigarette company, Lucky Strike, bases its Hit Parade on the songs young people like although there is no suggestion of a pitch to teenage smokers in the commercials. Some auto companies have recognized the influence of teenagers in choosing the family car, and have made a message to teenagers part of their appeal. Another company makes a special razor for young men starting to shave and a cheese firm offers a year's free telephone service as a prize in a jingle contest for the high-school age group.

On a local level the pitch to youngsters is more direct and insistent. Through advertisements and various promotional devices, notably by the record companies, a strong bid is made for their attention and their money. Of the 125,000 to 150,000 records sold each week in Canada, sixty percent are bought by teenagers.

One radio station, CHUM in Toronto, has changed its policy to transmit the fifty top popular records over and over again twenty-four hours a day, with a lacing of commercials and news reports and anecdotes in between. Of these the top thirty, according to Billboard’s listing on July first, were songs with a rock: and-roll beat and all but two were sung by young men. Since songs of this type are believed to be favored by a certain kind of listener, one gloomy analyst recently came to the conclusion that the folk-songs of the nation were being chosen for us by a young woman probably sixteen to nineteen, marking up her form chart while she babysits.

Phil Stone, vice-president and disc jockey on the station, is one of those with something to sell who thinks that teenagers are wonderful.

“Whenever we come across a statistic that shows that only one percent or something like that of all teenagers are delinquent we put it on the air. Makes them feel good,” says Stone, who believes in keeping teen-age morale high.

The visit of a movie star who sings can be the occasion for a promotional bazaar. The record business has been so lively lately that such an unlikely vocalist as Robert Mitchum has been singing calypso and Jerry Lewis who, as a comic, always seems to have difficulty making human noises, has turned up on turntables.

When Pat Boone was in Toronto recently he dutifully made the rounds of the disc-jockey shows and met them all at a party thrown by the record company. At the same time Famous Players were lining up thirty teenagers to picket the Hollywood theater, where his picture Bernadine was playing. They were to carry signs reading “Down with Presley—Up with Pat Boone” to attract young patrons. They got passes to the show for their loyalty to the new star.

Teenagers include the price of at least one movie a week in their informal budgets. The influence of teenagers on the record output can be gauged by turning any dial and the movie-makers, too, tailor a good part of their product to the same audience. A movie like Bernadine, which cost a million dollars to make, will probably net three or four million at the box office. Of this about half a million will come from Canadian tickets sold mostly to teenagers.

Promoters pay little attention to fan clubs on the theory that they are phonies. There is one notable exception. Most of the teen-age clubs in Canada show considerable duplication in their rosters, but the exception, the Liberace fan club, is solidly supported by a cadre of motherly grey-haired women, the kind who frequently wonder out loud what teenagers are coming to.

It would seem that they are coming to economic maturity a few years younger than they ever did before. And as far as where they’re going, they've probably already gone—shopping. ★