Traditional mall retailers like Gap, K. Crew, and Abercrombie & Fitch have faced declining sales in recent years.
And the problem might be signaling something even more troublesome than dowdy apparel. Instead, it is a total shift in how teen consumers think.
Young people want to purchase experiences rather than actual stuff, and when they do buy clothing or shoes they want to be able to showcase purchases on social media.
"Their entire life, if it's not shareable, it didn't happen," Marcie Merriman, Generation Z expert and executive director of growth strategy and retail innovation at Ernst & Young, said to Business of Fashion. "Experiences define them much more than the products that they buy."
The only apparel young people want is clothing that can translate into an experience on Instagram or Snapchat.
Given their limited budgets and frugal tendencies, they're more likely to purchase lots of clothes at fast fashion retailers, like cutting-edge Zara or cheap Forever 21, so that they have ample images to share.
But Instagram and social media outlets like Pinterest are affecting the way older consumers view fashion, as well.
Pinterest is unique in that unlike other social media outlets, which are focused on capturing and memorializing the past, it's focused on aspiration and the future. By pinning dream outfits, wardrobes, and runway style, women instantly whip up outfit ideas for weeks. Fast fashion stores, rather than traditional retailers, are equipped to fill their fashion needs.
This is a relatively new phenomenon, which is why retailers that thrived in the '90s might be struggling.
"Back in the '80s and '90s, there wasn't real access to higher-level fashion," Kate David Hudson, co-founder of online fashion magazine Editorialist, told the The New York Times "It was the heyday of business casual, and stores did well selling core staples."
But now, consumers have nearly instant access to trends on the runway, and they want the looks that they see as soon as possible.
This is why companies like Zara, with rapid-fire supply chains, are succeeding; they can respond to trends churn out runway-esque designs swiftly
"It [Zara's supply chain] keeps lead times shorter, which leads to the second advantage: that they do not have to commit to all of their stock well in advance of each season and, actually, are still manufacturing during the season. Obviously this means they can do things like respond to fashion changes, reduce or increase production as necessary, introduce new lines and so fort," Neil Saunders, CEO of research firm Conlumino, wrote in an email to Business Insider in December.
Related: See some staple pieces available at Zara:
Zara clothing, accessories
Instagram and Pinterest are killing Gap, Abercrombie, & J. Crew
PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 14: Fashion blogger Amelie Lloyd (Ameetslloyd), wearing Sandro jeans and belt, an Asos top, a Zara trench and Adidas shoes during a street style session on February 14, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 13: Fashion blogger Sarah Benziane (Les Colonnes de Sarah) wearing an And Other Stories top, Charles and Keith shoes, an Andie Blue bag and a Zara necklace during a street style session on February 13, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 13: Fashion blogger Sofya Benzakour (La Couleur du Moment) wearing a Zara top, a Zara short, a YSL bag and Mi-Mai boots during a street style session on February 13, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 13: Julia Mateian is seen at Lacoste wearing Shop the 26th hat & shoes, Lamarck coat, YSL bag, and Zara overalls during New York Fashion Week: Women's Fall/Winter 2016 on February 13, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Sperzel/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 12: Maria Parra is seen at Giulietta wearing a Moher coat, Proenza sweater, Zara pants, Pedro Garcia bag, and Superga for The Row shoes during New York Fashion Week: Women's Fall/Winter 2016 on February 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Sperzel/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 11: German fashion blogger Caroline Daur wearing a green Topshop Unique fluffy fur jacket, black Zara pants, black Poi Lei shoes, Jimmy Choo sunglasses and a white Yves Saint Laurent bag seen outside BCBG Max Azria during New York Fashion Week: Women's Fall/Winter 2016 on February 11, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Christian Vierig/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 11: Amelie Lloyd wearing Jennyfer suit and top, a Zara perfecto jacket, a Balenciaga bag, Dior sunglasses and vintage shoes during a streetstyle session on February 11, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 07: Fashion blogger Meryl Denis, wearing a On Parle de Vous full outfit, a Shein bag and Zara shoes, during a streetstyle session on February 7, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 06: Fashion blogger Sofya Benzakour (La Couleur du Moment), wearing a Pas Encore top, Mango jeans, Zara shoes, a On Parle de Vous jacket, a Pimkie hat and a Gucci bag, during a streetstyle session on February 6, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 06: Bryant Woodson is seen on Oak Street wearing thrifted glasses, camel wool Club Monaco coat, camel cashmere Topman sweater, brown suede leather Zara gloves, black leather Kenneth Cole clutch, light grey Ralph Lauren pants, and white Aldo shoes on February 6, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Matthew Sperzel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 06: Zhaocong Liu is seen on Oak Street wearing locally made in China glasses, camo print Givenchy shirt, black Zara jacket, black Helmut Lang pants, and gold studded/spiked Christian Louboutin shoes on February 6, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Matthew Sperzel/Getty Images)
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK - FEBRUARY 05: Fashion model Cathrine Norgaard wearing Zara top and blazer, Valentino bag, Maje leather pants, Norr hat during the Copenhagen Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2016 on February 5, 2016 in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo by Christian Vierig/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 04: Kish Rav seen at Skylight Clarkson Sq outside the Orley show wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses, vintage pilot hat, Get Me Fly jacket and Zara distressed jeans and shirt during New York Fashion Week: Men's Fall/Winter 2016 on February 4, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Georgie Wileman/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 04: Anisa Tavangar is seen outside the Timo Weiland show wearing a J. Crew sweater, Zara jacket, Prada skirt, Vagabond shoes and Saturdays NYC bag during New York Fashion Week: Men's Fall/Winter 2016 on February 4, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images)
Hasani Arnold is seen at Skylight Clarkson North wearing Zara coat and pants, Dress Code (Taiwan) shirt, Ermenegildo Zegna glasses, Comme des Garcons shoes, and locally sourced in Taiwan bag during New York Fashion Week: Men's Fall/Winter 2016 on February 3, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Sperzel/Getty Images)
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Traditional retailers, like J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Gap, are not equipped to do that without having to completely revamp their business models. Instead, they have to resort to incessant discounting to get rid of styles that failed to resonate with consumers. The heavy discounting, in turn, leads to two major problems: declining sales and the general devaluing of a brand as a whole.
For this month's New York Fashion Week, Banana Republic will give consumers the chance to buy the newly launched clothes online as soon as they debut on the runway.
The pressure is on for retailers to adapt to these changing ways, particularly since it's more important than ever to reach teens and nail social media.
A recent Ernst & Young survey reported that teens, or Generation Z, has the highest expectations out of all consumers, and if retailers please them, they'll in turn, please everyone.
"What I'm suggesting is that they [retailers] understand the needs of Gen Z as the barometer," Merriman said to Business Insider. "They have the highest expectations. If you please them, you're also going to please millennials – and Gen X and Baby Boomers and others will be happy."
That means that if traditional retailers want to salvage their sales, they'll have to look to young people for inspiration.