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Teens on what's hot—and what's not—this fall

Retailers and analysts try hard to understand the teenage mind, which is no easy task. Some teen retailers seem to be striking the right cords with teens, while others are out of tune.

Earlier this week, just before school starts back up in New Jersey, I joined eight local teens, ranging in age from 13 to 18, trying to better understand what's hot and what's not for back-to-school and beyond.

Here's what I learned.

(Read more: Teens are shopping—just not at traditional malls)

They're waiting to shop

While retailers started rolling out back-to-school merchandise and promotions in July, few reported strong sales traction in the latest round of earnings. But all hope is not necessarily lost, as many retail analysts believe consumers are waiting to buy "closer to need."

None of these eight teens have truly started back-to-school shopping for clothing or shoes.

Eighteen-year-old Andrew Chegwidden is getting ready to begin his first year of college, and his reasons were practical. "My text books costs so much—I want to see what I have left for clothes … the clothes I have will do for now."

For most of the girls in the group, holding out on purchases had more to do with trend-watching.

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

"I like to wait and see what people are wearing in school, and then I adjust," explained 14-year-old Elisabeth Steinberg. Her friends all agreed.

They're looking for value

Even though many of the teens said it was their parents footing the majority of the back-to-school clothing bill, they were acutely aware of prices, and kept at least loose budgets in the back of their mind as they shopped.

The teens all said they were contributing at least some of their own money from part-time jobs as babysitters, referees and from chores, so sale prices caught their attention.

"I like the Gap. They have nice product and the prices aren't too bad," said 17-year-old Brianna Mott.

Nearly everyone agreed the prices at Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch are too high. When shopping at American Eagle, the general consensus was prices are reasonable, but $35 for a lounge-wear sweatshirt was just too much.

The boys compared sneaker prices, and agreed that $100 is about the limit for new kicks.

"If you spend too much on sneakers, you're not going to have enough for the other stuff," said Chegwidden.

All eight understood that the further they could stretch their parents' money, the less they would have to pitch in to cover the difference.

They're brand-loyal and still care about in-store experience

Retailers are spending a lot of time, effort and money on enhancing and expanding their online, mobile and social platforms. But, it's all lost on our eight teens. All of the them prefer shopping in-store, and none said they shop or browse online. Mostly, it's about being able to try on clothing, touch and feel the fabrics, and shop as a social outing.

Most of the teens knew exactly which stores they wanted to hit and which ones they could walk on by. There has to be something truly attention-getting for them to go into a store that normally doesn't make the list.

"Sometimes I like new stores. If I see something cool, I walk in there," said Bryce Mott, 13.

"I don't look at the website before I go in," echoed his sister, Brianna. "If I see something in the window, I'll go in. But, I pretty much stick to the stores I know."

While the teens are very brand-loyal, all were turned off by clothing with large labels on the merchandise. And while they may not be enticed by online offerings, they do pay attention to their favorite celebrities and what they're wearing.

Kylie and Kendall Jenner (the youngest of the Kardashian clan) have a clothing line at PacSun. Said Giovanna Boscarino, 15: "They advertise on, like, their social media—which we're all following—and we're like, 'Oh! She's wearing those shorts from PacSun.' And we're like, 'Oh my gosh, we have to have them!'"

The in-store experience is an important part of the shopping decision process. None of the teens much enjoyed shopping at Hollister, saying it's too dark to really see the clothing, the music is too loud and the cologne is overwhelming.

However, while in American Eagle and PacSun the girls lingered, commented on the music selection and said the environment was more comfortable.

What's hot, and what's not

In general, the teens were looking for trendy clothing and said that's particularly important in the spring and summer. What could be worrisome for retailers is that a number of the teens said they care less about clothing when it gets cold, and that they focus more on comfort at that point.

The girls were split in their excitement about Uggs, the pricey shearling-lined boots brand owned by Decker's. Some said they plan to wear them this year, but others said they wanted to buy riding boots, Steve Madden combat-type boots or Minnetonka moccasins.

There was a unanimous opinion on skinny jeans and leggings—those are the only options for pants. Bootleg jeans are an absolute no-go.

When it came to retailers and brands, the group liked Gap, Garage, PacSun, Victoria's Secret's PINK line, Urban Outfitters, Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and Macy's—noting the Jessica Simpson merchandise as a particular point of interest.

Some like Nordstrom, but only go in with parents. American Eagle was a favorite among the girls, but they admitted it was a store they've "grown into," explaining it hasn't always been a favorite, or age-appropriate.

Chegwidden liked JCPenney for the Arizona Jeans. He said it's the best fit for him and he goes to the department store specifically for those jeans. When I asked if he has noticed any changes at JCPenney over the past year and half or so, he said "not really."

No one in the group is thrilled with the offerings, prices or atmosphere of Abercrombie & Fitch and all thought Aeropostale was too "juvenile." Brianna Mott said she used to like Hollister, but she's moved on and prefers the Gap's classic style.

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

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com.

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