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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)
Looseleaf binders, No. 2 pencils, rulers—and bulletproof whiteboards?
Armored accessories including backpack inserts and clipboards are showing up on back-to-school shopping lists in the wake of campus shootings, from the Sandy Hook massacre to this week's gunfire in Decatur, Ga.
But some security experts say safety-conscious supplies like whiteboards-turned-shields are impractical at best, and a diversion from real life-saving resources at worst.
"It may be well-intended but it's not well thought-out," said Ken Trump, a Cleveland-based school safety consultant and father of young kids.
Many people who end their Friday or Saturday nights in a hospital emergency room have been drinking alcohol. In fact, public health experts estimate that about one-third of all injury-related ER visits involved alcohol consumption.
But what exactly are people drinking? What types of alcohol and even what brands? Is there a direct link between advertising and marketing and later injury?
Until now, those questions have been unanswerable, frustrating alcohol epidemiology researchers. But if results of a pilot study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health hold up, there may soon be a way to connect the dots.
(Read more: Bad buzz for brewers as light beer sales slip)
When the Hopkins researchers surveyed ER patients who'd been drinking, they found that Budweiser was the No. 1 brand consumed, followed by Steel Reserve Malt Liquor, Colt 45 malt liquor, Bud Ice (another malt liquor), Bud Light and a discount-priced vodka called Barton's.
Greg Koch is a self-described "beer geek gone pro."
Koch, the co-founder and CEO of Stone Brewing Co., started as a homebrewer and has never forgotten his roots, even while growing Stone into the 10th-largest craft brewer in the U.S., based on 2012 sales volume.
"Homebrewing has always been a fundamental element of the craft brewing culture," Koch recently told CNBC. "The beautiful thing about homebrewing is that there doesn't have to be a commercial objective. The brewers brew what they want, when they want."
These days a growing number of consumers are catching the homebrewing bug. The American Homebrewers Association (AHA) estimates that 1 million Americans brew beer at home at least once a year and with Mississippi passing a law allowing homebrewing last month, it's now legal in all 50 states for the first time since Prohibition.
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.
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.
Call it the Chipotle effect.
With fast-casual restaurants such as Chipotle and Panera Bread growing at a sprint while fast-food counterparts expand at more of a slow jog, the latter group is entering the race is trying to shift upscale. At stake is a booming restaurant segment.
Fast-casual restaurant sales rose 13 percent last year, while fast-food sales increased 4.7 percent, according to data from market research firm Technomic. The company expects the former to grow an average of 10 percent through 2017, compared with a rise of 3.5 percent for fast food.
Despite the rush, experts say there's definitely room for fresh ideas.
"Right now, our country is pretty saturated with fast food—you could evolve that entire segment into fast-casual," said Sam Oches, editor at QSR magazine, which covers the quick-service restaurant industry.
(Read more: Secret's out! Hidden menu items)
"There's no ceiling on this," he added. "This is just going to be explosive growth for possibly decades."
These are heavy days for light beer makers.
Bad spring weather and a sluggish economy have been cited by brewers such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors as reasons for the recent poor sales of some of their flagship light beer brands. But a couple of new surveys might give greater cause for concern: consumers may just be growing tired of the taste of light beer and moving on to wine or spirits.
According to a survey by Consumer Edge Insight, beer consumers appear to be shifting away from the premium light segment. That's more bad news for the beer industry, given the dominance of light beer in the marketplace. The top two best-selling beer brands, Bud Light and Coors Light, together have about a 27 percent share of the market.
The main reason for the shift? Twenty-seven percent of the respondents said: they are "getting tired of the taste."
While new sneakers and fresh crayons may ease the pain a little for students dreading the first day of school, mom and dad usually find little relief from those back-to-school bills.
The one exception may be the sales tax holidays that will be offered in at least 17 states this year. These events, 12 of which are happening this weekend, make school purchases a little less expensive.
Although many argue sales tax holidays benefit retailers, states and consumers, several data-heavy studies conclude otherwise.
"The hope is on the part of states that if consumers spend more on back-to-school items than otherwise because of tax cuts, this benefits the broader economy and leads to additional tax revenues elsewhere," said John Lonski, chief economist at Moody's Capital Research Group.
Always looking to increase sales, more retailers are turning their attention north—to less skittish Canadian consumers who don't have as many shopping choices.
Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, sees Canada as a way for retailers to squeak out more growth in a tough environment.
"In this retail economy, anywhere you can get growth, you go," she said. "Every sliver counts. Ten years ago, there was a business mindset that said that Canada was small and perhaps not worth the investment."
Both luxury goods retailers as well as discounters, including Target and Wal-Mart, are among those planning to step up their presence in the country, whose increasing urbanization makes it a more lucrative target.
(Read more: How to evaluate retailer stocks: Pro)
That was underscored this week when Canadian retailer Hudson's Bay announced plans to buy luxury retailer Saks for $2.4 billion, a move aimed at beefing up its presence in both Canada and the United States. Hudson's Bay CEO said Saks' expansion into Canada could occur quickly, with up to seven department stores and 25 Off Fifth outlets.
"For North American retailers, it's easier to look over the fence at their neighbor versus looking across the pond for growth," said Carman Allison, Nielsen's director of shopper and industry insights. "With Canadians being exposed to media and advertising, brand awareness already exists for a number of key retailers and brands before they even enter the new market."
Break out your jelly sandals and overall shorts: 1990s fashion has staged a comeback, prompting U.S. retailers to respond with fresh inventory of the decade's hottest looks.
At online retailer eBay, interest in '90s-related items has surged. Between July 2011 and June 2013, searches for crop tops rose 119 percent, while use of the phrase "acid wash jeans" was up 39 percent.
"The decade was front-loaded with lots of edgy silhouettes, bright accents and zany looks, all of which are feeling fresh again," said Heidi Ware, eBay's head of fashion editorial and creative.
Christina Cheddar Berk is editor of CNBC.com's Consumer Nation and chief trend spotter.
Courtney is a retail reporter for CNBC.
Tom is a Senior Editor and Assignment Desk Manager for CNBC TV. He also writes about the business of beer for CNBC.com.
Stephanie Landsman is one of the producers of "Fast Money."
Coordinating Producer, Squawk on the Street & Squawk Alley
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