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Teenagers Shop For Art of the Deal

By Ruth Laferla
New York Times
September 22, 2005

GABY Yosca can stretch a dollar like a bungee chord. Last weekend, during an hourlong shopping expedition at a Salvation Army store in downtown Manhattan, Ms. Yosca, a 15-year-old sophomore at the Dalton School, worked with a budget that was modest but elastic enough in her expert hands to accommodate four dresses, an aqua-tinted tank top, a brown corduroy blazer, two silk shirts, two belts, a pocketbook and a volume on makeup. "I scored," she gloated as she watched the cashier ring up her haul for a grand total of $62.50. Scooping it up, she glanced at her mother, Susan Yosca, who stood waiting outside flashing her a thumbs up.

Gaby Yosca said she is learning fiscal restraint when she shops.

"I just love watching her shop," Mrs. Yosca said, beaming. "I can give her $50, and she comes up with a wardrobe."

Ms. Yosca, as she may be aware, typifies a new breed of dollar-conscious teenager. Many are the offspring of affluent parents and have the means to pay retail prices for, say, a coveted Chloe Paddington Bag, Seven jeans or Ralph Lauren bed linens. But they would rather chase a deal.

Escalating prices, a jump of as much as 20 percent in the last year, have made some teenagers budget-conscious. Still others are tightening their purse strings in response to a shift in personal values, which often contrast markedly with those of their parents, for whom money has rarely been an object in the headlong pursuit of material goods.

"Today not everyone in this country wants to be like Paris Hilton," said Juliet B. Schor, the author of "Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture" (Scribner, 2004). Dr. Schor, who teaches a class on consumerism at Boston College, said she has noticed a new frugality in her students' diaries of their buying patterns. For many influential teenage consumers, she said, "it has become socially acceptable, indeed there is even a positive valence to going to shop at discount retailers."

Spending by teenagers has dropped 4 percent in the last year to $158 billion, according to Teenage Research Unlimited, which tracks consumer habits. "We find although teens are naturally optimistic, reality has begun to intrude itself," said Rob Callender, the trends director for the company. "Teens are becoming rather more value-conscious."

Call them cheapskates. They don't mind. For this group, pinching pennies is a competitive sport: a test of cunning and a point of pride.

"It's more fun for these kids to be in the know and connected than to march into a store and pay retail," said Irma Zandl, a youth marketing consultant who observes the buying habits of teenagers. "It's cool to be smart about how little you spend."

Ms. Yosca, for instance, would rather raid her mother's jewelry box than buy trinkets at the mall. And she shops for vintage clothes and accessories at flea markets at the New Jersey shore, where she spends summer weekends. She has learned to practice fiscal restraint. "I always test myself," she said. "If I see something in a magazine I really like, I'll put it aside. If I still want it in about four weeks, I'll actually consider it. By that time it might be on sale."

The tendency of some teenagers to scrimp where their elders might splurge runs counter to a time-honored trend that has gathered steam in recent years. Many an adolescent's self-esteem and standing with peers has been and still is measured largely by the heft of his or her pocketbook and penchant for living large. But they are shifting their patterns of consumption. While it may still be true that few can resist the blandishments of high-tech gadgets like the iPod Nano, Motorola Razr or Sony PSP, to name a handful, many are placing voluntary curbs on day-to-day expenditures like cosmetics, compact discs and clothing.

"It's not so much that teenagers are spending less in total than they always have, but that they're wising up about what to spend it on," said Tina Wells, the director and founder of the Buzz Marketing Group, a New York market research company that interviews American high school and college students. In a shift of priorities, many today are pressuring their parents to pay for such high-ticket expenditures as cable on demand, a satellite car radio system, TiVo or additional cellphone minutes. "But when it comes to typical categories of big spending - fashion and beauty - they're just over it," Ms. Wells said.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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robc@tru-insight.com

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