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What if back-to-school meant 4 pairs of jeans, 2 pairs of shoes and 3 smartphones?

Our digital life

women looking at phone

As we lament summer’s passing and charge into fall, we think it’s important to reflect on the constants that guide us through this transition. Those vivid autumn colors, the evenings with just a hint of chill in the air and the inevitable return to school that accompanies this yearly shift. 

Those things – along with many others – are critical to helping us engage with the fall season. Leaves bring us out of the house to rake or ride bikes. Cool nights are an excuse to don those jackets we packed away last spring. And back-to-school fashions provide the ideal opportunity for a full wardrobe refresh. 

This year, however, marketers and trends analysts are finding that some things appear to be changing. 

Specifically, those looking to understand teen fall fashion for this season are finding out that one of the biggest trends appears to be the iPhone 6. In a recent New York Times article (“Plugged-In Over Preppy: Teenagers Favor Tech Over Clothes”), we learn that one of the many challenges facing teenage-apparel retailers is that social cachet these days is as much about tech as it is threads. 

One retail analyst laments the fact that focus groups on teen fashion trends often veer off course into the more complex world of tech.

“You try to get them talking about what’s the next look, what they’re excited about purchasing in apparel, and the conversation always circles back to the iPhone 6. You get them talking about crop tops, you get a nice little debate about high-waist going, but the conversation keeps shifting back.”

Of course, we’re all aware of the challenges inherent in focus group research. 

But if you’re out and about, happen to own a teen or two or just have your ear on the ground, you will recognize that our frustrated analyst’s observations are spot on: the world of technology is rapidly merging with that of fashion. 

Fashion and technology have always been great friends, but this is different. It’s about mainstream Americans finding fashion in the way they live – as they always have. And because 58 percent of adults in the United States own smartphones and nearly 40 percent of teens own smartphones, it only stands to reason that Americans will increasingly be treating smartphones as equal parts function and fashion. 

Case in point: Within the article’s discussion of technology-as-fashion is a reference to the well-known trend of teens owning many decorative coverings so they can accessorize their phone depending on the occasion.

“When you take pictures, people see your case.” 

At first glance, this seems reasonable enough. 

Working under the logical assumption that we’ll be owning and using one device, these industries offer a number of different accessories, making our devices suitable for our specific lifestyle purposes and desires. For tweens and teens, that seems to be a selection of colorful cases, some designed with logos and interesting patterns or textures. Other folks, perhaps older, might opt for rubber cases to protect the phone from the hazards of everyday life. And still others might opt for a water-resistant case for the beach. 

But as insight specialists with a knack for culture, what can we learn here?  

The industry appears satisfied with encouraging us to own a single device – however trendy, fashionable or functional. But as consumers, our desire for customization is being treated as an afterthought, a sales rack of “slap-on” cases we peruse while waiting to complete our purchase. 

This is the equivalent of those overshoe galoshes our moms made us wear in the 1960s and 1970s. Thank God the footwear industry had the good sense to partner with the athletic and outdoor industries to provide a myriad of solutions for our fashion, athletic and outdoor footwear needs, many of which were unarticulated at the time. 

And lo and behold, the net result is that many of us now own a collection of highly specialized footwear, with each pair serving very specific purposes: beach, fashion, surf, track, golf, jogging, court sports, soccer, high-tops, trekking, hiking, urban outdoors and on and on. In a recent visit to REI alone, we counted nine different categories. 

And they all look so darned cool. 

So why hasn’t the same happened with smartphones? Why are we forced to wait with great anticipation the arrival of a single new model every 12-18 months? 

Shouldn’t we have the ability to own a collection of smartphones, each custom-tailored to meet our needs and desires for the occasion at hand? How about an all-weather phone, a stylish phone, a rugged phone, a play phone, a kid's phone, a fitness phone, an elegant phone, a photo phone and so forth? 

If you approach this idea with an open mind, it really isn’t as crazy as it may sound. 

Once our friends in tech finally figure out the cloud, the integration and transition between our multiple phones and devices should be immediate and seamless. They’ve been promising this for several years now and by all indications are pretty darned close. 

As to the cost, the vast majority of smartphones can be had for under $100. They may not be as sexy, but folks are snapping them up – especially in the global marketplace. 

The iPhone – what many consider the gold standard – can be had for under $150 without contract if you’re willing to settle for an older model. And by all accounts, prices will continue to drop as global economies of scale ramp up. 

Think about the cash most of us lay out for footwear. And who among us doesn’t have more than a few pairs of perfectly functional shoes gathering dust and taking up space in our closet? 

The bottom line is that if the majority of Americans own far more shoes than they probably need, each indulging a specific need or desire – be it function or form – why can’t we demand the same of our smartphones? 

More importantly, why are these industries not combining forces to make this happen? 

If you begin with culture as a home base – be it fashion, food, recreation, technology or entertainment – and work outward from there, you find a surprising wealth of insight. Some of those insights may prove to be dead ends. Others may only stimulate conversation.

But imagine the outcome if just one of those insights leads us down that pathway of glorious, unrecognized opportunity. 

Our fall afternoons may never be the same as we reach for that “all-weather” phone before heading outside to rake the leaves.


Culture Technology/Social Media


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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