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Home Décor, à la Teenager

By Tracie Rozhon
November 3, 2004

FREEHOLD, N.J., Oct. 26 - Jade Lenshoek Pinheiro, wearing an orange Reese's T-shirt, tight black pants and long white skeleton earrings, tried out a $129 padded barrel chair in the Dry Ice furnishings store in the shopping mall here, and decided to keep looking.

"I'd buy everything here," she said, gesturing to the brightly colored pillows, the metallic diner stools and even the free-standing neon palm tree, "but I've got to compare prices at other places first."

Miss Pinheiro, who says she spends about $100 on each of her shopping sprees, is only 11 years old. Yet she represents a shopper the home furnishings market has recently discovered and started courting avidly: teenagers and preteenage consumers with a passion for decorating their surroundings.

In surveys done by Teen Vogue and by Teenage Research Unlimited, these young people say they get their spending money from chores (Jade earns $2 an hour baby-sitting for her younger sister and keeps her own checkbook), from weekly allowances and from presents from relatives. And of course, when an item is really expensive, like the frosted-glass desk here for $299, parents say they are often more than willing to help out.

More retailers are rushing to take advantage of what has become a $17 billion market for room furnishings meant to appeal directly to young people from third grade through high school. It is a market, said Michael Wood, a vice president at Teenage Research Unlimited, that has "really exploded in the last two years.'

And instead of leaving furnishing decisions to their parents, older teenagers and their 8- to 14-year-old sisters and brothers -- called tweens by retailers -- are proud, insistent even, about making those decisions themselves.

Last year, teenagers and tweens spent an average of $386 to decorate their rooms -- more than double the figure of a decade ago, according to the Wonder Group, a youth-marketing company in Cincinnati.

Merchants are responding. Besides Dry Ice, a $30 million private company that started on a mall cart and has grown to 40 stores from 7 in the last three years, this market is full of start-ups, some more successful than others.

Paul Frank began five years ago by making wallets in a garage. He now sells sheets and pillowcases emblazoned with primitive monkey heads. As Paul Frank Industries, he puts out a brochure of home bedding for tweens, featuring the monkey heads and skeleton heads. The company has 13 stores, as well as a fast-growing wholesale business supplying department stores and specialty shops.

A year ago, Pottery Barn opened PBTeen's Web site, full of flokati rugs and hanging shelves. Last week, the PB Teen site recorded 117,000 visitors; a spokeswoman said retail stores were coming next.

"About two years ago, this consumer was not addressed at all," said Patrick Wynhoff, the senior vice president at PBTeen. "Teens had to find stuff for their rooms in Ikea or Target or adult furniture shops or do their own makeshift improvisations. Now everybody's hopping on the wagon.'

Limited Too, after a debacle with its stand-alone Mishmash furnishings and accessories stores for teenagers, is at it again with a new chain called Justice, for a younger clientele: ages 7 to 14. The company has already opened 33 stores, with dozens more planned for next year. The best-selling item? A $7 privacy door bell, which parents, older siblings and other would-be visitors must ring before entering.

In the last year, "Trading Spaces" the popular television reality show, has spun off "Trading Spaces: Boys vs.

Girls." In one episode, a 12-year-old boy pronounced a pink room disgusting and vowed to do better; a recent show pitted Andrew vs. Caitlin, in a battle over playrooms.

Tweens and teenagers are not easy to figure out, as retailers unabashedly admit. But one thing is clear, those who survey them say: parents have a lot less influence over what they buy and how they furnish their rooms than they once did.

"When I was a kid, I slept in a room with my two brothers,' said Steve Thomas, the chief executive at Dry Ice. "We were stuck with my parents' cast-off wedding furniture." Now children usually have rooms to themselves - the American house is 50 percent bigger than it was in 1970 -- and they control much more of what is bought.

Both Emily Maier, 9, and her twin brother, Brandon, said they set the table and fed the dog, in exchange for what they wanted - "within reason,' added their mother, Theresa, of Allenwood, N.J.

Emily knows exactly what she wants: "I want posters, a beanbag chair, a new headboard and bookshelves and one of those locker things." Brandon, who describes his room as "cool," said he just traded in his twin bed. "I got a full-size bed, a bookshelf and a bulletin board, full of basketball pictures,' he said.

Eileen Joyce, the vice president for interior design at Bloomingdale's, who has been in this line of work for 25 years, says children are more involved in their rooms than ever before. "The parents used to figure it out and tell the kids,' she said. "Now they ask the children, What would you like?"

Ms. Joyce said that teenagers and their tween siblings often have starkly differing tastes. "A 17-year-old girl might want ruffles and canopies,' she said, while "the 13- and 14-year-olds tend to want platform beds, very modern, very sleek."

The interest in decorating now starts well before adolescence. Holli Amalfitano, an 8-year-old with long dark brown hair, plopped happily into a $219 orange velvet chair shaped like a catcher's mitt on a trip to the mall. It was her ninth visit to Dry Ice, which sells things like bed canopies and bulletin boards - all for the school-age set.

Not far away, two 16-year-old girls, canvassing the mall without their parents, spun on two glossy-metallic diner stools.

"There's a definite switch from Pottery Barn Kids, where Mom makes the choices, with maybe a little input," Mr.

Wynhoff of PBTeen said. Next year, he said, PBTeen plans to introduce an "item of their dreams" feature, which will allow kids to lobby for their deepest desires by making a list of chores they will do to earn money to pay for what they want -- or the movies and candy they will forgo.

Mr. Wynhoff, while refusing to break out sales separately for PBTeen, said the unit, which is part of the $3 billion Williams-Sonoma Company, had "exceeded all of our expectations consistently.'

Claire's, a jewelry and accessories chain for girls 7 to 17, is starting to expand its Claire's Club, until recently a room accessories section inside its regular stores.

Within the last two weeks, the 1,700-store chain, starting at the Mall of America outside Minneapolis, opened its first three freestanding Claire's Club boutiques. Recently introduced items include foldable stools, cellphone holders for the desk and "dream nets" to serve as canopies surrounding the bed.

This kind of "soft' home furnishings business -- versus furniture -- is thriving, said a Claire's spokeswoman. But Claire's is moving cautiously; Charlotte Russe, another tween-oriented chain, tried to do something similar with Charlotte's Room, but halted the experiment last year, after the young constituency failed to buy.

These customers' critical nature is shown on a chat Web site called SmartGirl, which is run by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan.

In a recent review of PBTeen, a 14-year-old named Kayla (last names are not used on the site) summed up her opinion of the collection. "It's cool," she wrote, "but don't look if you aren't prepared for high prices." Her conclusion?

"Low quality and expensive."

Responding to the questionnaire, she said her favorite item in the catalog is the stuff-your-stuff bed and headboard.

Asked if she had ordered anything, she responded, "No, but I think I will because I am redecorating my room."

Pollsters and retailers say this age group is continually gaining sophistication. Not only are many girls mini-fashionistas, but both boys and girls say they watch adult-oriented shows about houses and interior design.

In a survey done by Lowe's, the home-improvement chain, 65 percent of teenagers said they had watched home makeover television shows like "Trading Spaces," "This Old House" and "Cribs."

According to MarketResearch.com, these young sophisticates represent a potentially vast audience with considerable buying power. There are 23 million Americans ages 6 to 14, and 32 million from ages 12 to 19. The number of teenagers alone has risen 16.6 percent since 1990.

And they have more to say about how the entire house is furnished.

"They have begun to exert influence on the rest of the family," said Gina Sanders, the publisher of Teen Vogue.

But their own bedrooms still come first.

Indeed, the most popular Teen Vogue feature is not a column about fashion.

Nor is it the regular feature called "Model Scout."

The winner is a monthly article where a teenage reader describes how she decorated - and, usually, says she is constantly redecorating -- her own living quarters in the family's house.

It is called, simply, "A Room of My Own."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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