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Teens are shopping—just not at the full-price mall

Emile Wamsteker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Retailers may be holding their collective breath, hoping the shoppers will show uop soon.

This weekend is traditionally a big one for back-to-school shopping, but summer sales haven't inspired confidence that retail's second-most important season will be strong.

American Eagle Outfitters and Aéropostale both warned investors about slower-than-expected sales and lower earnings expectations.

A combination of factors are crimping sales for apparel retailers. High unemployment, elevated gas prices and increased payroll taxes are still pressuring consumers, but there are retailer-specific issues as well.

Teenagers may simply have lost interest in what Aéropostale and American Eagle are offering, said KeyBanc analyst Ed Yruma.

"What we are seeing is that teens are spending more for some of these 'need to have' accessories," Yruma said. "Whether it be the Michael Kors' handbag [or] the North Face backpack, what they're doing is mixing and matching that with less expensive items. ... So really giving it a high-end plus a fast-fashion-type look.

That approach makes it tougher for traditional youth retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Aéropostale and American Eagle as the pricier players soak up significant chunks of back-to-school dollars.

(Read more: Huge deals on back-to-school clothes)

At a recent Piper Jaffray Consumer Conference, a panel of high school students told attendees that they planned to apply some of their back-to-school budgets to a Coach handbag, a Louis Vuitton iPad case or a Kate Spade wallet. In a survey of thousands of teens, Piper Jaffray found Michael Kors followed Coach on the coveted-handbag list, while Vera Bradley came up third.

While Coach, Kate Spade and Michael Kors merchandise is sold in department store such as Macy's (in addition to dedicated boutiques), teens and their families have been flocking to outlet malls in search of designer duds.

Traditional mall traffic may be weak this summer, but outlet malls appear to be faring better. At Simon Property's Woodbury Common in Central Valley, N.Y., young adult shoppers patiently stood in lines outside Michael Kors, Tory Burch, Kate Spade and other designer stores.

(Read more: Busting the myth of back-to-school tax holidays)

"I've been to Under Armour, North Face, Michael Kors—probably going to Coach and Nike," said Gabrielle Perry, a 16-year-old from New Jersey. "Michael Kors has bags for 50 percent, and they are nice bags, too."

Claire Muldren, 20, is also a Kors fan. She left the store with a new iPhone 5 case, and her friend is hunting for a high-end wallet "for school and going out."

High-end department stores don't want to miss out on the outlet boom. Saks and Nordstrom both have more outlet than full-line locations. Last month, the latter announced that four new Nordstrom Rack stores were in the works.

"The vacancy rates in outlet malls right now are running about 5 percent," while vacancy rates on the traditional retail side are "somewhere between 10 and 15 percent," said Ken Lombard, a partner at Capri Capital Partners. "The retailers that are a part of these outlet malls are seeing more success in terms of sales."

'Back-to-school Saturday'

That's why some are hoping promotions and events may draw teenagers back to the mall.

Saturday marks the second annual "Back-to-School Saturday." Fifty shopping centers owned by Simon Property and 20 owned by General Growth Properties are participating in the event, created by Teen Vogue.

Organizers say 45,000 stores throughout the country will be offering promotions. Social media will also play a role, with activated ads and editorial features promoted on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Some retail industry analysts said that they expect consumers are timing their shopping trips more carefully.

(Read more: Lessons to watch for in Wal-Mart, Macy's earnings)

In a note to clients, Jefferies analyst Daniel Binder said that although the industry had a slowdown in sales after Father's Day, he doesn't see it as the beginning of a downward trend.

"We think the consumer has a propensity to shop closer to need," Binder said. "We have seen this in many instances since the Great Recession, and we only have to look to first quarter and early second quarter to see when it happened last. We may witness this again as consumers shop late for back-to-school."

That could mean big-box retailers like Walmart and Target may be able to sell school supplies and backpacks before new sneakers and fall jackets make their way to the checkout lane.

—By CNBC's Courtney Reagan. Follow her on Twitter @CourtReagan.

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