When we pull up in front of Abercrombie, the preteen version of Abercrombie & Fitch, silence falls over my crowd. With its cloying overspritzed air, loud thumping music, blowup posters of young girls and boys, this is ground zero for tween fashion worship: collared shirts in sorbet colors, tanks so thin they often come with holes already in them and skin-tight jeans that curvier teenagers can't squeeze into.
It's a place where I have been held hostage so often that I have coined a name for that vacant look of resignation women get when setting foot inside the store: Dead mom walking.
But on this day I've come not to bury Abercrombie. I am here to observe my daughter and her two friends make their way around a suburban mall to help me understand why shopping seems to have become an acceptable hobby, even an obsession, among some young girls. And to see how stores like Abercrombie and American Eagle Outfitters, as well as luxury brands, successfully court these young girls and turn them into customers.
After 28 years in the fashion business, the last four running Marie Claire magazine, I am well acquainted with the pleasures of shopping and how the fashion industry is always trying to focus on new audiences. What was surprising about watching these girls move around the mall was their depth of knowledge of even the most sophisticated brands and their brand loyalty.
For them, going to the mall is no longer about looking. The concept of window shopping no longer exists. Going home without a bag is unthinkable. Shopping has become about buying.
"The idea of recreational shopping is not new," said Juliet B. Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and author of "Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture" (Scribner). "Think back on stereotypes of women of leisure at the turn of the century who spent all their time shopping."
What is new, she said, "is there is less of a cultural taboo on materialism."
Ms. Schor said this increase in materialistic values has been reflected in several recent studies, including a Pew Research Center poll of adults 18 to 25 in 2006 that found a majority of those surveyed said that "getting rich" was their main goal.