Tween trends get more expensive as they take cues from social media



Sitting cross-legged on a carpeted floor, the 12-year-old presented her Christmas haul from various relatives on TikTok: Four pairs of shoes (including custom Converse and Mini Uggs), Kendra Scott earrings, a pink Apple Watch, a 40-ounce Stanley tumbler in sage green, and a cache of beauty products from Fenty, Ouai and Summer Fridays, among others.

Estimated retail? Roughly $2,200 to check off the most sought-after prizes of an increasingly influential consumer: 10- to 13-year-olds.

The wants of tweens and teens typically come with a certain urgency, as generations of parents can attest. Buttressed by social media, influencer marketing and the “bandwagon effect,” experts say Generation Alpha and younger members of Gen Z have a more prolific and boundless catalogue at their fingertips for what’s “in” than ever before. And their likes are decidedly more upscale: prestige makeup and skin care (and mini fridges to store them), $50 Stanley tumblers, $600 Dyson Airwraps and any number of Apple products.

Though the hyperfocus on trends is typical of the age, it’s more amplified, according to Jenna Drenten, a marketing professor specializing in digital consumer culture at Loyola University Chicago. While earlier generations might have taken their cues from classmates or magazines, tweens and teens now see their peers on platforms like TikTok, Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube.

“It’s sort of teen life on steroids,” she said.

And it’s spawning viral moments in retail, as evidenced by last week’s release of limited-edition Stanley tumblers at Target. Fans lined up outside stores before sunrise to nab the cup made in collaboration with Starbucks, and arguments broke out at a handful of locations. The same thing happened weeks earlier when Target dropped its exclusive Valentine’s Day edition cup.

Stanley is the brand of the moment in the fast-growing category: Sales of insulated stainless steel tumblers, mugs and cups swelled to $1.8 billion in the first 11 months of 2023, a 33 percent jump year over year, according to Circana. And its Quencher leads the pack in the 40-ounce class, the most popular size.

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This age group also is snapping up pricey makeup and skin care, even products usually reserved for “mature” skin. That’s given rise to viral TikToks from exasperated adults. In one post with more than 18 million views, influencer and college student Gianna Caldera recounts how a 10-year-old tried bartering after they both reached for the same $38 Drunk Elephant bronzing drops (a rare find in stores these days).

The girl, after giving Caldera “the nastiest up-and-down look I’ve ever gotten in my life,” then responded, “Give me your Gucci heart ring and I will.”

“Is every 10-year-old negotiating in Sephora?” Caldera, 18, asked.

The mania behind these products is heightened by their collectability and the sense of connection they offer, industry experts say.

“Material things have always been markers of identity,” Drenten said.

It’s also compounded by biology — puberty and cognitive development can feel upending and confusing, said Mindy Weinstein, the founder and chief executive of digital marketing company Market MindShift. So buying into a trend or product — perhaps popularized by older teens — can ease those uncomfortable feelings.

It’s known as the “bandwagon effect, and it’s really pronounced in that age group,” said Weinstein, who has a Ph.D in psychology. At that age, “they aren’t always sure where they fit into the world. But now by buying that [item] they feel like they fit in.”

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Every generation of tween has had products, accessories, brands and styles they covet. A decade ago, it was Justice clothing, colorful iPod minis, Sidekick cellphones and EOS lip balm. In the early 2000s, Juicy sweatsuits, North Face fleece jackets, Nike Shox, Abercrombie & Fitch and Razr flip phones reigned. In the ’90s it was buying from the Delia’s catalogue magazine, Lip Smacker balms, United Colors of Benetton and Tommy Hilfiger polos. The ’80s had Guess jeans, Keds, banana hair clips and J. Crew sweaters. In the ’70s it was mood rings, Wrangler and Levi’s jeans, Puma sneakers and Frye boots.

Social media boosted brands’ visibility, in part because they send products to influencers of all ages, encouraging them to use or show off the items in videos.

Ava McGowan, a 13-year-old from Virginia Beach, said she goes to TikTok and Instagram to find new products. “I like to see what people use and how it works,” she said.

More than half of U.S. teenagers (ages 13 to 19) spend at least four hours a day on social media, according to Gallup, and most of that time is spent on YouTube and TikTok. The constant push of products by influencers or their peers on their screens blurs the line between luxury and necessity, and suddenly that $50 intensive hydration serum, $300 gaming chair or pair of $160 Ultra Mini Platform Uggs is easy to justify.

And it’s highly effective — consumers are more likely to consider buying a product and have a favorable opinion about it if it went viral, said Ellyn Briggs, a brands analyst at Morning Consult. So, it’s no coincidence that some of the top items on tweens’ Christmas lists included viral favorites like Lululemon, Stanley and Sol de Janeiro fragrances.

“TikTok influencers already have their trust … teens and tweens see them and they want to also be into that trend and feel like they’re belonging to that social group,” Weinstein said.

It used to be that our hair, makeup and skin care products were only visible to those who entered our bedrooms, scanning vanities and opening drawers. Now, teens and tweens are filming “Get ready with me” videos, showing off their Rare Beauty liquid blush ($23), Laneige lip balm ($18) and Charlotte Tilbury setting spray ($38) as they complain about school or recap a friend’s bat mitzvah.

Margeaux Richmond and her friends spend a lot of time talking about skin care. The 12-year-old from Des Moines said she got a $62 Drunk Elephant moisturizer for Christmas. “It’s kind of pricey, but if it’s good for your skin it’s worth it,” she said. “It’s kind of important to me and my friends because we don’t want our skin to look bad or anything.”

Brands are uniquely tapped in to what consumers want. They can interact with customers in the comments on TikTok, gain instant feedback and track what’s trending. Briggs pointed to colors as an example. Younger consumers — particularly female — are attracted to bright hues and pastels, she said, noting that Stanley looks to beauty and fashion trends for its tumbler palette.

This also fuels a collectability culture. The customer no longer wants one water bottle, one pair of Air Jordans, one Summer Fridays lip balm or one Nike sweatshirt — they want them in every color.

“We have to think about today’s consumers, not as consumers, but as fans; and fandom has always been intertwined with collecting,” Drenten said. “In today’s culture, particularly among young people, we’ve kind of shifted away from obsession with celebrities to obsession with brands.”

Having and displaying a collection on shelves and on social media is seen as a status symbol. Superfans also collect accessories for some of these products, Briggs said, spawning a whole side industry for some products. People are buying sweaters, straw-toppers and decorations for their Stanleys and matching accessories for popular athleisure wear.

Who’s doing the actual buying is harder to track. Not all adolescents have jobs or parents who are able or willing to spend $550 on Apple AirPods Max or $275 on a Tiffany & Co’s Pink Double Heart Tag Pendant necklace. “These products, to some extent, are a point of privilege and status,” Drenten said.

Some of the spending could be attributed to more young people in the workforce: Roughly 37 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds had a job or were looking for one last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the highest rate since 2009.

Richmond said she uses her babysitting money to buy Drunk Elephant skin care or Kendra Scott jewelry — items “my parents won’t buy me.” She’s saving up for her second Stanley tumbler. McGowan often uses gift cards and cash from holidays or birthdays, though sometimes her parents will pay. But she doesn’t splurge too often because she knows her favorite brands are spendy: “I usually only buy it if I really need it.”

Drenten emphasized that shopping or gift hauls on social media don’t reflect what every teen or tween wants. It varies by socioeconomics, demographics and personal preference. “At the end of the day, they can still be influenced by who they’re around and not necessarily what they’re seeing as the top line products online.”

A side note to this phenomenon: The same willingness to try new products and brands because of what they see on social media also means Gen Z and Gen Alpha are more fickle when it comes to brand loyalty, Briggs said. It’s inevitable that Stanley will be replaced by another water bottle in the near future (after all, it usurped Hydro Flask, which overtook S’well, which bumped YETI, which displaced CamelBak, which ousted Nalgene).

Plus, once tweens jump on a trend, the “older kids, teenagers, young 20s adults, kind of separate.”

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