American teens are going back to the mall.
Even as e-commerce explodes, and digitally native brands appear to control nearly every segment of retail, legacy mall brands like American Eagle ($AEO) are finding that their most important customers ー teenagers ー are gravitating to an old-fashioned in-store experience.
“Unlike millennials, the majority of Gen Z kids would rather shop in a physical store,” said Chad Kessler, American Eagle’s global brand president. “We’re seeing a return to wanting to interact with people.”
The retailer has found a way to court these customers in a new campaign that, as Kessler explained, takes cues from both the digital and physical worlds. The AE x ME Share Your Style campaign asks American Eagle customers to snap selfies of themselves in AE garb ー whether in their bedrooms or a store fitting room ー and post to social media with the #AExME hashtag. The brand then combs through the photos and curates a selection for its ad campaign.
The company is effectively giving over creative control to its customers, Kessler said. “It’s the customer taking ownership of the brand.”
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The campaign reflects the way in which many younger consumers now shop: they’ll browse social media, build an emotional connection with a brand, then head to the store to touch, try on, Instagram ー and then buy the product they first glimpsed online. And this strategy comes from a retailer that’s no stranger to innovative marketing. American Eagle was among the first companies to recognize the desire for authenticity in advertising, launching its #AerieREAL lingerie campaign featuring unaltered photos of “real” women in 2014 ー all while Victoria’s Secret was still parading supermodels down the runway (and losing market share to AE in the process).
American Eagle is, above all, a jeans retailer, Kessler said. The marketing and styles are emblematic of what Gen Z wants in denim, which, he said, has lately been about “mom jeans” and “jeggings” with ever higher waistlines. While the brand tries not to chase trends ー “we’re responding to what our customers search for” ー Kessler said he still pays attention to the zeitgeist. And right now, that includes ー yes ー the lamented return of the low-rise jean.
“Whatever our customer wants, we’ll give them,” he said.