JOPLIN, Mo. —
When Christi Sterling heard about two mothers who nearly got into a fistfight over the last locker chandelier in a retail store, even the woman who helped spawn the locker-decor industry had to shake her head.
"We thought, good grief. It's locker decorations," Sterling, co-founder of LockerLookz said. She's one of two moms from Plano, Texas who launched the company in 2010, a year after they made custom locker decorations for their daughters entering sixth grade. The moms' phones started ringing off the hook from other mothers whose daughters wanted the same magnetic mini-chandeliers, wallpaper and organizing pockets. The moms figured they were on to something.
Were they ever.
They went from having their products -- from the best-selling battery-operated chandelier ($24.99) to the mini shag rugs -- in 80 stores in 2010 to 2,200 stores last year. The manufacturers they use in China couldn't keep up with the orders, creating a frenzy of demand during previous back-to-school shopping seasons.
The fledgling entrepreneurs said they were getting 2,000 calls a week, many from retailers begging for more product since they couldn't keep what they had on the shelf. Sterling says a retailer called to tell them about a mother and daughter who wanted to buy the only remaining display items. When the store refused to sell the display, the two threw a tantrum, plopped on the floor and refused to leave until they got what they wanted. (The store caved and sold them the display.)
Other specialty stores said they had to hold lotteries to decide who could purchase the items and reported lines of 300 customers outside their doors.
Sterling said they received emails from girls whose parents drove them 200 miles in search of the locker accessories they wanted, only to find them sold out. And they heard calls from sobbing tween girls.
"That was an interesting summer," Sterling said.
Interesting, indeed. The duo and their wares have been featured relentlessly on national and local media.
Why would zebra-print magnetic wallpaper, hot pink swatches of shag carpet and dry-erase boards provoke such a reaction among young girls and their mothers and captivate our collective attention?
It's because this duo hit upon a burgeoning rite of passage and turned it into a commercial bonanza. These lockers, like so much of what is de rigueur for this demographic, seems worlds removed from the stuff we had.
Sterling says much of the summer conversation among girls entering middle school centers on how they will decorate their lockers. My greatest locker-related concern the summer before middle school was whether I'd be able to remember the combination and work the lock.
Of course, tweens want to express their individuality, and today's tweens have had their own branding since birth. From their Pottery Barn-decorated playrooms to their mural-enhanced bedrooms, we've created a stylized aesthetic for each stage of their young lives. They've had more designed around them and for them than any 9- to 13-year-olds in recent history. They expect a customized childhood.
And parents have become used to demonstrating their affection through things, especially if they see other parents doing it. Like so many other aspects of parenting, it becomes a race: Will my daughter feel left out because her locker is so 1980s industrial gray metal?
Tweens have tremendous spending power and influence on purchases. In fact, ages 9 to 13 are the "new power players of consumerism," as described by POPAI, the Global Association for Marketing at Retail. They are responsible for $200 billion in sales a year, of which $43 billion comes from direct spending of their own disposable income, according to the POPAI "Tweens R Shoppers" report.
In this transition from child to teen, we've created strange expectations of what real life may look like. I can sympathize with the impulse to give a daughter something special to look at every day in school. But regardless of how adorable those chandeliers are, how unique is it when everyone else has one? We may try to understand such trends as an expression of individuality, but mass-produced is hardly a unique look.
LockerLookz has worked out its earlier production issues, and a number of copycat accessories have cropped up.
Rest assured, you can now give your child a designer locker without having to beat up any other parents in line.
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.