T-Commerce: The Net/Teen/Consumer Equation

Nine months ago, Visa and American Express placed bets on the teen generation: Each company launched its own new-look card. Both cards targeted an audience that would stun most people — teenagers from 12 to 18.

Since the launch of both products, an estimated 300,000 teens in the U.S. have signed up for the debit cards. Both cards can be controlled by parents, who have supervision over every detail, including which establishments the card may be used in.

This concept has lots of positive and negative angles. But, for now, let’s concentrate on one sure thing: These teen products are probably here to stay.

Why? Well, they’re bound to become invaluable marketing tools. They simultaneously enthrall their target market (donating a sense of consumer independence a teenager is unlikely to renounce) and give marketers a ready set of enviable opportunities. Let’s summarize the situation: Teens, the fastest growing of market segments — which also happens to be the largest online audience segment, the quickest-learning online segment, and the segment likely to become the biggest spending group in consumerdom — are now able to purchase stuff online.

Nevertheless, few marketers seem to have recognized the opportunity this new development presents. Visit some of the largest teen sites, and read the small print. It advises that only persons 18 years of age and over are allowed to make purchases. And if this condition isn’t stipulated, at least 1 site in 10 presumes itself to be addressing grownups in the e-commerce zone. This approach is negligent of the fact that, by now, at least 300,000 potential teen visitors have their own debit cards.

Once, the Internet market was aimed at adults and visited and patronized by them. But all that changed last November. The change has given birth to an active e-commerce consumer group that brings with it new characteristics and demands — criteria that are quite different from those of the adult online consumer.

Teens, for instance, don’t necessarily fancy the same type of warranties or purchase guarantees that grownups demand. This is an audience substantially more computer and Internet literate than other online consumer groups. This audience is also constantly looking for a different selection of products. But it is also highly brand loyal, yet it adapts readily to new brands that manage to hit the right note and appeal to the consumers’ profile appropriately.

In short, this is a user group that, by this analysis, may yet offer the most attractive prospects for ongoing online patronage. The teen consumer group is fundamental to the future well-being of Internet commerce.

Several decades ago, an Australian bank established a school-banking system, giving all kids direct access to their own bank accounts. The bank was, and still is, appealing to the youngest of audiences by introducing children to banking in their infants-school years. The rationale is, of course, that school banking introduces these young minds to the habit of banking, to the concepts of saving and investing. Even though the school-banking system costs a fortune to operate, it still runs today. Why? Because the strategy behind the rationale remains cogent: School-banking introduces customers to their bank early in life and, every year, adds new future-adult customers to this infant foundation.

All research demonstrates that loyalty is created in the consumer’s younger years. Brands that appeal to teens will be remembered by those teens as they enter their adult consumer lives. And those brands will enjoy a loyalty from that early-won group that is unlike the loyalty they will ever receive from any other consumer group.

Whether I like the launch of debit cards for teens or not, undoubtedly the innovation represents the real genesis of a new online audience — the teens. Here’s an audience that has always — always — had access to the Internet. For this group, the Internet has nothing to do with computer fear; for this group, computer fear does not exist. The Net has always been there, as has the instrument for accessing it.

Net + teen card + consumer instincts = yet another term: “T-Commerce.”

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