Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Penney for Your Teens

So USA Today reports that J.C. Penney Co. is first among mall stores among 13- to 16-year-old girls. Who knew? This is the same Penney's that was being written off as dead not many years ago.

Admittedly, the article goes on, Penney's loses them when they get to age 16 and then gets them back when they have their own children.

(Why newspapers are, or at least used to be, like department stores...)

But this line particularly struck me: "Department stores can feel too physically unwieldy for teenagers." When I was a kid, I never had that feeling -- but I can well understand having it. Teens are always onstage in their own minds, always self-conscious, and here you've got to walk in through the perfume counter and the gauntlet of women in their 20s and 30s and find your way to the juniors department, wherever they put it -- whereas at Hollister, you walk in and you're THERE.

Newspapers feel the same way for teens. They're in that weird size nothing else is, and the stuff that you want to read -- sports or comics or whatever -- is somewhere back in the back, but to get there you've got to wade through all that other stuff that you don't have a clue what it is.

Those of us who remember downtown department store shopping will know that if you went into a large store in another city, you had to look for the sign over the door saying "Washington Street" or whatever to know where you came in. It was disorienting. You "learned" the store through shopping there regularly. Similarly, people "learned" the newspaper by reading it, which may have been simpler when there were only two sections.

But on the Internet, you're THERE. Wherever you are. If you don't want to be there, you can leave easily. You don't need to look for Washington Street.

Sometimes I think one of our problems is that even journalists as parents don't teach their kids how to read the newspaper. They just think they'll pick it up through imitation. But it's not worth their effort unless they know there's something there that they want. If we offer almost nothing to younger readers, why should we be surprised that they don't read us? (Well, because we confuse the readers with us. All teens should be debate captains who are interested in state policies on wind power.)

Penney's knows its job. "With the teens, we have to capture them with a brand and a look," the chief marketing officer says. The story goes on: "Penney executives are stressing its brands' names -- not its company name." If, say, high school sports was marketed both print and online as not just a department of the newspaper but as something entirely different -- published as a tab with a completely changed layout and way of writing -- with links to "more photos and chat online,," but with some of the components available in print only -- could there be opportunity there?

Finally, one mother in the story says her children "'don't like to shop at the top department stores like Macy's and Dillard's, but they will shop at J.C. Penney,' because its styles seem trendy." If dowdy old Penney's can make itself more trendy than Macy's, newspapers can easily save themselves.

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