In the battle for Gen-Z’s wallet, retailers have started to focus on a specific shopper: the 11-year-old girl.
In recent months, several brands have ventured into the tween category, targeting customers aged eight to 12 who are just starting to develop their own sense of style but are still primarily spending their parents’ money.
Tween fashion typically looks fun and whimsical like kidswear, but tend not to feature as many dinosaurs, tractors and unicorns so that middle schoolers feel like they’ve graduated from the children’s section. However, clothes for tweens tend to be less trend-focused than apparel meant for even slightly older shoppers.
At Sugar & Jade, the new tween online-only girl’s label that American kidswear giant the Children’s Place launched in November, this looks like tie-dye shirts and celestial hair charms. With Franki by Francesa’s that was recently spun off into its own stores and e-commerce site, it’s acid-wash denim overalls and floral smock dresses. At Janie and Jack, which launched tween last year, its preppy varsity sweaters for tween boys and denim ruffle dresses for girls. With Target’s More Than Magic tween label, tween fashion means pastel training bras and leopard tankinis.
Perhaps nothing signals the return of tween fashion better than the reappearance of Justice at Walmart this past summer. When Justice was known as Limited Too, the company, along with Delia’s (or dELiA*s, for purists), dominated the bustling tween category, with hundreds of stores that sold spaghetti-strapped tanks and jellied platform sandals.
But during the 2010s, tween brands closed hundreds of stores, filed for bankruptcy or disappeared entirely. It didn’t help that these chains were mostly located in malls, which saw declining foot traffic as shopping moved online. Many companies folded their tween lines into teen offerings.
But some brands now believe there’s a new opportunity to access tween dollars. Youth-oriented labels also hope to win customers’ loyalty before they discover Shein or become fully immersed in Nike’s universe. The rise of TikTok, where tweens often drive the latest trends despite the platform’s ban on users under 13, is also creating new opportunities.
“No one is more important for culture than middle school girls,” said Nate Jones, a director at Gen-Z marketing firm Juv Consulting. “Brands are talking to these kids because there’s decision-making going on. They are developing a sense of self. If you can hook someone at an early age, you will have them for longer.”
Not A Girl, Not Yet a Woman
The tween market is mostly dominated by sports apparel brands and budget retailers like Walmart, said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst with Forrester.
Boys especially are loyal to brands like Nike, Champion and Adidas. Tween girls are more open to trying new labels and styles — at the right price.
“This is a shopper who may be spending her own money for the first time, so the price point needs to be kept low,” said Andrea Wasserman, a former retail executive.
Tweens are also using clothes differently than older kids. Teen labels mostly follow trend cycles, pumping out whatever denim cut is popular. Tweens are looking to experiment, and want more of a mix of styles to choose from.
“Tween is the phase where there’s boldness and self-expression, but they don’t quite need that validation of caring what other people think,” said Laura Roso Vidrequin, the founder of kids resale site Kids O’Clock.
At the same time, brands should be cautious of making styles that feel too juvenile.
“Because these kids are seeing how 18 and 20-year-olds dress on Instagram and TikTok, they’re more sophisticated and don’t want such cutesy clothes,” said Casey Lewis, the journalist behind the Gen-Z newsletter After School. “Tween brands like Delia’s and Justice crashed and burned because they relied on fuchsia, purple and glitter, and didn’t really evolve as they were supposed to. That’s not [all] that tweens are looking for.”
Tween brands should consider how comfortable Gen-Z is with gender fluidity, and offer gender-neutral options, Lewis noted. These options will “speak to kids who don’t want to be pandered to by gender, and also appeal to parents who are increasingly woke,” she said.
Francesca’s chief marketing officer Jann Parish said tweens today have plenty of choices for casual clothes and athletic wear, which is why Franki by Francesa’s is focussing on occasion wear.
“For a young girl, coming of age celebrations like bar and bat mitzvahs and school dances are important milestones where they need options, so that’s something we can really own,” said Parish.
Janie and Jack sees an opportunity with elevated basics that “take a fashion twist … as opposed to putting out more activewear,” said chief executive Linda Heasley. “The brand fills a void in the market by delivering essential classics.”
What a Girl Wants
How to reach young shoppers is still something brands are trying to figure out.
Tween brands should also be looking for ways to infuse activities like gaming into styles and marketing, said Vidrequin of Kids O’Clock.
“They are the tech wizards in their house, so you need to speak this language,” Vidrequin said. “You need to be well-versed in gaming, TikTok, which viral videos are in their market.”
TikTok technically only allows users 13 and older to register for an account, although one-third of the platform’s users are under 14. In the US, there are strict regulations about how and how often brands can advertise to kids under 12 on mediums like television, but TikTok advertising strategies are still in development.
For brands that really want to catch tween shoppers, one way to evolve beyond social media ads is to roll out stores that feel like eye candy, Lewis said. Part of the excitement of shopping at stores like Delia’s and Limited Too was the assortment of candy and makeup. These stores tapped into the cultural zeitgeist, which tweens brands now need to do for kids who are glued to their phones.
“When we were tweens, our only exposure to the outside world was MTV and teen magazines,” said Lewis. “But kids today have so much more knowledge, and … are excited to buy clothes.”