I realised the accuracy of the tagline for the high street brand Claire’s – “we make memories” – while reminiscing about the shop’s lilac chaos. To many millennials who grew up in the 2000s, memories of Claire’s are familiar and specific: butterfly clips, tubs of heart-shaped lollipops, “sterling silver” earrings and those balls of tiny, brightly coloured plastic spikes (on jewellery, key rings and even spiky balls for spiky balls’ sake). If I could hold one of those products now, the feel of the squidgy spikes and the smell of the plastic would transport me straight back to 2005.
Over the past decade there have been moments when Claire’s risked being relegated to memory forever. By 2010, 14 years after its UK launch, Claire’s had 465 stores across the country. But in a tricky retail climate, this number was reduced in the two years that followed. In March 2018, the brand filed for bankruptcy in the US. The same year, Claire’s undertook a restructuring across its European arm, including closing more underperforming stores of its remaining 370 in the UK.
Two years on, though, Claire’s remains firmly on the UK high street, with 316 stores remaining. Over 24 years it has used its cheap, fashionable products and free in-store ear piercing service to cement its fun, casual reputation. But as a brand primarily aimed at teens and children, it is under constant pressure to stay relevant. So do Gen Z still flock to Claire’s for multipacks of studs and to goggle at their friends getting pierced? What does it mean to today’s youth, and can it survive on an increasingly barren high street?
Though the neon spikes have disappeared, Claire’s has retained its colourful style, which still has plenty of teen appeal. Lula, who’s 12 and lives in Oxfordshire with her mum, tells me over the phone: “At places like Accessorize they generally just do plain earrings. At Claire’s they do watermelons and more fancy designs, and teenagers and kids like that kind of thing.” Claire’s has also continued its Best Friends range, offering gifts and every variation of matching “best friends” jewellery (from classic broken heart necklaces to a pair of avocado-shaped key rings bearing the words “avocado” and “avocadon’t”). These products still hold significance for tweenies aside from their aesthetic value. “Lots of people get them,” says Lula. “People feel like it makes them closer to their friend. It’s kind of nice to have that symbol.”
That Claire’s is a brand targeted at children and teens has always been reflected in its low prices. Buying cheap jewellery can be the first foray into expressing your style independently, because, unlike clothes, you can afford to buy it yourself with pocket money. Clare Bailey, an independent retail expert, explains that Claire’s is a brand designed for “exploratory shopping”. This actively appeals to young consumers, but also eliminates much of the threat of the online market. “This age group would go out to shops with their friends. They’d visit places like Claire’s, Lush and Primark, and they’d go for a milkshake, and come back with bags of stuff that they didn’t really need,” she says. “The spend is more a hobby than a purchase you’re really thinking about.” A former employee of a Claire’s store in Gloucestershire, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that in her experience customers were usually “teenagers who wanted to get pierced without their parents, and young children who wanted to spend their pocket money.”
That said, Gen Z are well aware of the sacrifice of quality that comes with low prices – and in turn the impact of that low quality. Susannah, who’s 17 and lives in south London, doesn’t shop in Claire’s because she finds it “a bit cheap and tacky”.
“I like to buy from local businesses, or Etsy or Depop,” she tells me. “It’s much more sustainable. I don’t think Claire’s is particularly eco-friendly.” Lula, too, is “a big environmentalist”, and has concerns surrounding Claire’s sustainability. “I go there sometimes but I try to look for things that aren’t packed with plastic packaging,” she says. “They’re not very good with plastic, and that makes me want to shop there less.”
Clare Bailey confirms the effect of Gen Z’s environmental awareness: many teens would rather buy second hand than from fast fashion outlets, including Claire’s. “Less organic, biodegradable products are used in costume jewellery, and this generation is not interested in that,” she says. Brands like Lush, which she groups in the same “exploratory shopping” category, can retain their teen market more easily because their products are expendable: when you use it up, you need more. With Claire’s, though, “if it breaks or tarnishes or is no longer fashionable, it just goes in the bin.”
As well as these offerings of “stuff”, as much fun simply to buy as it is to own, Claire’s is known for its in-store free ear piercing – which remains as divisive a topic as it was in my school in 2007. In the wake of recent lockdown-easing legislation in the UK, independent piercing and tattoo artists expressed outrage online that their businesses were not allowed to reopen due to social distancing regulations, but Claire’s was allowed to open in its capacity as a shop.
“Tattoo shops can’t open? Piercing specialists can’t open? But Claire’s Accessories can still fuck your ears up? Go fucking figure," one user tweeted on 23 June. Although Claire's aren't currently piercing ears during the pandemic, that Claire’s will “fuck your ears up” is an idea still circulating among teens. Susannah tells me she would never go there (she thinks one of her friends did and that the piercing got “severely infected”).
Claire’s is clear about its safety and hygiene regulations, though (particularly in the wake of COVID-19), and plenty of people have no qualms about its ear piercing (it has pierced “over 100 Million Ears Worldwide”). Bailey says in the late 1990s and early 2000s Claire’s was “a nice, fresh alternative to going to a piercing studio” as tattoos and piercings stopped being taboo (she attributes this partly to the Spice Girls era). Lula doesn’t have her ears pierced yet, but wouldn’t have a problem getting them done at Claire’s since her "mum got her ears pierced there.”
I got my ears pierced at Claire's too, but my perception of Claire’s as a simple, nostalgic purple haven is clearly outdated. For Gen Z, who have inherited a burning planet, buying tat comes at a greater cost. To fix their complicated relationship with Gen Z, Claire’s will have to adapt. “Their original customer group has grown out of it,” says Bailey, and Claire’s needs to consider what experience they’re offering beyond “just buying things”. Make no mistake: the youth of today want more than squidgy, spiky balls.