Sales are down across the shelves of many traditional teenage apparel retailers, and some analysts and others suggest that it's not just a tired fashion sense causing the slump.
The competition for teenage dollars, at a time of relatively high unemployment within that age group, comes from more stores to shop in and more tempting technology.
And sometimes phones loaded with apps or a game box trump the latest in jeans.
Mainstays in the industry like Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and Aéropostale, which dominated teenage closets for years, have been among those hit hard.
Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters said sales at teenage apparel retailers open for more than a year, like Wet Seal, Zumiez, Abercrombie and American Eagle, were expected to be 6.4 percent lower in the fourth quarter than in the previous period. That is worse than any other retail category.
“It's enough to make you think the teen is going to be walking around naked,” said John D. Morris, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets. “What happened to them?”
So-called fast-fashion companies, like Forever 21 and H&M, which sell trendy clothes at low prices, have muscled into the space, while some department stores like Gordmans and discount retailers like T.J. Maxx cater to teenagers as well.
“The prices are amazing,” said 14-year-old Kalen Keegan, who was shopping this week with her mother, Nicole Warner of Omaha, at the Gordmans store at 17202 Lakeside Hills Plaza. “I just went to Hollister and bought two shirts for $42. Here they're more like two for $10,” Kalen said.
Gordmans, the Omaha-based apparel and home decor retailer, counts its juniors and young men's apparel departments as two of its “largest and most important categories,” said Jeff Gordman, president and chief executive of the chain, which operates 93 stores in 19 states.
“Our strength is first and foremost offering a very large assortment of the latest fashions, styles and trends, but at everyday big savings,” Gordman said.
In its most recent company report, Gordmans' net sales were up 5.8 percent over the same quarter of 2012. Revenue from stores open at least a year decreased by 6.1 percent, compared with a 1.4 percent decline a year earlier.
It takes more than low prices, however, to win teen approval: Fit and style are among the top criteria.
“Their clothes always fit good and they're never too baggy,” said Kalen, who was in search of spring clothes.
Appealing to parents, who often foot the bill at the checkstand, also is a big plus.
Warner, Kalen's mother, was happy with her daughter's final selection, black leggings and a pair of white sandals. “The leggings were $8,” Warner said. “You see them at other stores for $20, and the sandals were $8 — they're usually $40.”
Teri Huff of Omaha, the mother of 15-year-old Lindsay Huff, said she is the one making most of the buying decisions. “We have a lot of coupons,” Lindsay said. “And they've got really nice clothes.”
Staying on top of what is popular with teenage consumers has Gordmans' buyers making monthly trips to New York and Los Angeles to scout trends and check in with East Coast- and West Coast-based merchandise consultants, Gordman said.
Nebraska-based Post & Nickel, which has stores at Omaha's Rockbrook Village and 14th and P Streets in Lincoln, offers upscale brands, including Miss Me and Ugg, for teenagers and young men and women, and formal wear for men and women, said owner Tafe Sup Bergo.
“We also have suits at all different price ranges, so we are a great place for a teenager to get his first suit,” Bergo said.
Post & Nickel, founded in 1966, enjoys return customers who grew up with the store and now bring in their children and grandchildren, Bergo said.
At the other end of the spectrum, some teens regularly shop independent vintage and secondhand stores for unique clothing and accessories, often pairing brand-name items, such as jeans or leggings, with one-of-a-kind vintage pieces.
The Flying Worm offers vintage and new clothing at two locations: its original store in the Old Market and a store it opened at Westroads Mall in late 2012.
“Vintage items offer teens the ability to make a unique fashion statement,” said Katie Cleveland, who manages both locations. “It's a different way to express themselves.”
It's also clear that teenagers are shopping online as well.
A study of a group of teenagers that was made public in the fall by Piper Jaffray found that more than three-fourths of young men and women said they shopped online.
The Buckle, a Kearney, Neb.-based retailer, reported that same-store sales were down slightly in the third quarter of 2013, its most recent report. However, online sales in the third quarter of 2013 were up nearly 12 percent compared with the same period in 2012.
For the first nine months of 2013, net online sales rose almost 8 percent to $59.7 million.
Analysts often note that the company, which did not respond to requests for an interview, has opened stores at a more conservative pace than some other teen retailers. The company operates 449 stores in 43 states and recently broke ground on additional office space at its Kearney campus.
The Internet also has shaped and accelerated fashion cycles. Things take off quickly and fade even faster, watched by teenagers who are especially sensitive to the slightest shift in the winds of a trend.
Matthew McClintock, an analyst at Barclays, pointed to Justin Bieber as an example.
“Today, if you saw that Justin Bieber got arrested drag-racing,” McClintock said, “and you saw in the picture that he had on a cool red shirt, then you can go online and find that cool red shirt and have it delivered to you in two days from some boutique in Los Angeles.
“Ten years ago, teens were dependent on going to Abercrombie & Fitch and buying from the select items that Mike Jeffries, the CEO, thought would be popular nine months ago.”
Another factor chipping away at teenage retailers may be the shifting priorities among young people. Where clothing was once the key to signaling a teenager's identity, other items may have become more important and now compete for teen dollars.
“Probably the most important thing a teenage boy has is his smartphone,” said Richard Jaffe, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus. “Second, is probably his sneakers. Third, maybe, we get to his jeans.”
What may trump all of those, Jaffe said, are gaming systems, especially over the last few months, because Xbox and PlayStation both released new game consoles in 2013. That may have taken a bite out of what teenagers had to spend on clothes.
But analysts also point to other broad factors, like still-limited discretionary spending on the part of some parents, or too many store locations overall.
More immediately, it could be an issue of fashion. Last year was also a year that came and went without any must-have trends that might have helped nudge teenagers toward the mall, as brightly colored pants did in the previous years.
Many companies have had their own mix of challenges. The Urban Outfitters brand, for example, which focuses on teenagers more than the company's other stores, Free People and Anthropologie, blamed a 1 percent dip in third-quarter sales on fashion misses.
At Abercrombie, analysts say, part of the problem is almost the opposite — that it does not focus on fashion enough, and what is on the racks does not substantially change.
“I was a fan in middle school,” said Ava Tunnicliffe, 20. “I feel like style has moved on, and Abercrombie hasn't.”
World-Herald staff writer Janice Podsada contributed to this report.