A recent study out of the University of Georgia says that by 2001, African American consumers would be largest consumer group among minority races in the country. They're projected to spend over $570 billion this year. And researchers say while larger corporations have been pursuing that market, smaller companies are just catching on.
Locally, retailers have reached out to the younger African Americans capitalizing on a clothing trend known as hip hop style. It is so popular that it's influenced one local retailer to change its merchandise from casual preppy to what is called "urban gear". As Tarice Sims reports, the urban gears marketing target group is more influenced by urban labels and marketing images than they are price.
Tarice Sims- In the store Next Urban Gear, hip hop music serenades a few customers who are looking for the latest in trendy hip hop fashion - things like oversize baggy pants, and bright colored sweatshirts for men and, tight jeans and halter tops for the women. Like the name of the store says, this is the next big thing in fashion. Robert Rosenthal is the president of Next Urban Gear. Until 1998 the business was known as Chagrin Department Store or Chagrin River Clothing Store. Chagrin carried to preppy suburban style clothing and weekend wear. Rosenthal says since they switched over to urban gear business has improved.
Robert Rosenthal- We saw an increase in our business, we saw that our reach was better in terms of getting our customers through the door and we saw that there was more demand for the product that we sold.
TS- Rosenthal says Chagrin catered to people in their mid-thirties to mid-fifties. Their new customers are much younger. Next is one of several urban gear stores in the Cleveland area that target to the hip-hop consumer. Ads for Mr. Alan's shoes and sportswear are common on urban radio stations and local cable TV. In this commercial, quick shots of mostly African American men and women flash across the screen. The models are wearing popular clothing labels like FUBU and Kangol. Bowling Green State University Pop Culture professor Dr. Joe Austin has studied urban and hip hop trends for several decades. He says images and labels have been important in urban youth culture for a long time.
Joe Austin- For awhile it was also goose down jackets, then part of it was certain kinds and brands of tennis shoes, and so that's not unusual. And all those items have been very overpriced in terms of other items that were similar in the marketplace. So brand identification and commitment among young people has always been very strong. I'd say at least since the 1970s and particularly among the urban youth. It seems to have grown over time.
TS- Austin says something else that has also grown is the population of young people which provides a huge marketing opportunity. Some businesses like Mr. Alan's try to reel in customers by boasting about their discount prices. But others stores can be pricy by most standards. Still that doesn't seem to keep young people away. On a recent Friday night, 14-year-old Tiffany was at Next came to shopping for what she calls sexy and cute clothes with her mom. Tiffany says she was brought up in name brand clothes and doesn't worry about cost.
Tiffany- Some of it is taken out of proportion, but you've got to consider what it is, like Coogi jeans. They ain't nothing but $70, that's cheap to me.
TS- Other Next shoppers say the prices are high, but it doesn't matter. Jeff is a 16-year-old customer who came into the store after work with a friend. He says his parents don't understand why the urban gear he likes is so expensive and they refuse pay for it. So he buys it himself with the money he makes working at a local grocery store. Jeff says he doesn't spend all of his money on clothes but the ones he likes are worth it because in high school image is what it's all about..
Jeff- You see your role models like rap stars wearing them, and most people say yeah I'm gonna get it because he got it but I get it because I like it.
TS- Jeff says his friends look at the styles of rappers like DMX and Jay-Z. But it's not just who wears the clothes - who makes them has a great impact on the consumers as well. According to Professor Austin, the reason urban gear is popular with urban youth is because the designers are just like them. For example, 30-year-old Sean "Puffy" Combs owns the label Sean Jean and the brand FUBU stands for For Us By Us is run by African American men in their late 20s early 30s.
JA- Many of these fashions were actually designed by African American kids that's king of why they're hip. I mean the whole history of American youth culture since the second world war has been African American or kids of color creating, you know a kinds of culture within their own neighborhood that's how hip hop got started.
TS- Around Cleveland, people behind both Next and Mr. Alan's say they're encouraged by the sales. And like other urban retailers, they hope to keep riding the trend that has made urban apparel a multi-billion dollar business. In Cleveland Tarice Sims, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.