Retailers e-mailing you alerts of deals and new products is old news. But now some apparel chains are text messaging sale alerts, fashion tips and sweepstakes giveaways to a generation of teens who communicate — often intensively — by cell phone.
"I try to be careful giving my number out," said Kelsy Kappel, a Madeira Beach Middle School student whose personal record is 500 text messages in two days. "But if they text me 25 percent coupons for the Rave, I'm there."
So far, the preteen fashion hub Rave is not marketing via text message. But JCPenney, surfer/skate shop Tilly's and Beall's department stores all text-messaged sale alerts and offered downloadable ring tones and cell phone games as part of their back-to-school promotions this year. And www.nearbynow.com will text-message shoppers the results of product searches and put items on hold in stores at Westfield malls in Brandon, Citrus Park and Countryside.
"You're going to see a lot more chains get into this," said Cynthia Cohen, a Coral Gables marketing consultant who tracks teen trends. "To today's kids, texting is what the telephone was to the baby boom."
Why the rush to cater to two-thumb typists? Access.
"Teens don't watch much TV and they don't read the papers," said Kate Parkhouse, spokeswoman for JCPenney. "So we're fishing where the fish are. We see the Internet moving to the cell phone and we want to be there."
Indeed, Penney's initial ads promoting the service were seen only in theaters where teens gather for summer movies.
At Beall's there were glitches. An area code typo irked a cell phone owner in another state. A parent objected to her daughter getting messages that inflate her phone bill. But 5,000 teens who signed up since March get periodic messages, including one good for an extra $5 discount to those who wave their phone to cashiers.
"Only three opted out," said Gwen Bennett, Beall's advertising vice president. "People who sign up want the information."
Most www.nearbynow.com shoppers are women in their 40s.
"They learned to text to keep up with their children," said spokeswoman Pamela Herman.
To many teens, e-mail is how their parents or older siblings communicate.
"Text messaging is my life," said Kaity Warren, a Columbus, Ohio, high school senior vacationing in St. Petersburg who gets about 700 messages a month from friends and relatives. "I'd share my number with a store if it was the right store."
That's why text messaging is not a way to prospect for new customers, only an inexpensive way to cement relationships with shoppers already in the tent. Stores walk a fine line between relevant content and being labeled lame by picky teens.
"I got text messages from Seventeen magazine, but canceled the first month," said Christina Lean, a Seminole High student. "It just didn't interest me."
A trend for all ages
Teens are targeted at a time when marketers are flocking to exploit the popularity of text messaging across all age groups.
Campbell Soup Co. introduced V8 Fusion fruit juice by advertising a text message number to call for a sample. Delta Air Lines will text flight information. Many Tampa Bay area pizza stores text coupons.
"You'll see a lot more wireless mobile commerce in 2009," said Barry Diller, chief executive officer of IAC/InterActiveCorp, which owns www.collegehumor.com, Match.com and www.shoebuy.com. "Each of our 35 companies is gearing up a mobile application."
So far, however, the trend among teen chains is different than the spread of e-mail, which deteriorated into annoying invasions of spam.
Early adopter stores require shoppers to volunteer a phone number, but some don't keep it, or delete it within a month. They don't dispatch more than three or four messages a month. Customers can opt out at any time.
To avoid marketing restrictions on minors, none of the stores interviewed will execute a purchase transaction, and they regard text messages as advertising.
The Children's Online Protection Act forbids Internet marketing to children under 13. But it does not apply to wireless cell phones. That's the big reason teen retailers are walking on eggs.
"If customers decide you're spamming them even once too often, they won't just get angry; they will smash their cell phone into little pieces and you'll lose them as a customer forever," Andy Nulman, president of Airborne Mobile, a Montreal text message ad agency, told a group of retail executives eager to learn about the emerging medium.
To activists who see all teen advertising as a way to stimulate wanton consumerism that contributes to eating disorders and negative body image, text ads are just another way marketers bypass parents to insinuate themselves into children's lives.
"This miniaturization of technology exposes children to unwanted commercial messages faster than society can react to slow them down," said Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids and director of the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood in Boston. "The government response is 'Just say no.' "
Experts see more to come.
Malls are weighing GPS technology that alerts stores each time a mobile club member enters the mall so offers can be dispatched to their phones.
In Japan, stores post a bar code sign in the window that can be picture-phoned for a readout of deals inside. Just around the corner: text services that use a bar code to assemble price comparisons with rival stores.
Such advances have split retail executives. Some are happy that cell phone reception inside their stores is poor. Others are buying antennae to boost mobile reception to stay competitive.
"Only 35 percent of cell users ever sent a text message," said David Polinchock, chief executive of the Brand Experience Lab in New York that tests store technology (and who confessed to 937 messages stacked up on his cell phone). "This is just beginning."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.