While teenagers may be having personal issues with their own budgets, they've also been seeing what their parents are going through," says Ellen Davis, a senior vice president at the National Retail Federation. "Teens are cognizant of their parents' financial situations, and follow their example by looking for good deals and bargains before they buy."
While Davis says that wearing the "right brands" will always be important teenagers, a widespread increase in budget consciousness seems to have propelled less expensive brands into the trend spotlight.
Among the "three A's" that dominate teen retailing—Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, and Aéropostale—the only one currently growing sales is Aéropostale, the cheapest of the three.
"At Aéropostale, the one with the least brand equity, logo merchandise is actually driving the business," says Tennant. "That shows that teens are willing not only to wear the least expensive of the three brands, but to advertise that that's what they're wearing."
Jeff Klinefelter, a senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray, also says that in addition to cutting back on apparel purchases, his teens are eating out less often and going to fewer concerts and movies.
One place where spending has held up in the face of budget constraints seems to be cell phones and text-message services, as well as music downloads.
"The teen perspective is that communicating through cell phones and text messaging and having digital music seem to be, in a sense, necessities," says Klinefelter.
Part of this shift in interest from apparel to electronics might be due to a "mature" position in the fashion cycle, Klinefelter says, where trends have changed little enough from last fall to necessitate only minor wardrobe updates. But it also indicates a larger generational shift in priorities; teens care more about connecting and communicating than expanding their wardrobes, and it's the latest and greatest electronics rather than fashion accessories have become the "must-haves."
"Teenagers used to want to spend money on a new pair of jeans, and now they want to spend it on iPods," says Davis.
Looking ahead, no one expects teens to regain their lust for apparel in time for the holidays.
"Back-to-school is very indicative of where these kids shop for holiday and how much they spend," says Tennant. "What we saw was waiting to the last minute, and only coming in with coupons."
That, and holiday season will have one fewer selling weekends than last year—all of which adds up to a blue Christmas in teen retail.