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Summer 2005 Kid Power

Exposed to brands and advertising from their earliest years, before they even walk or talk, today’s kids are consumers. They know what they want, and they know how to exert their influence in the marketplace.

It starts at the local supermarket. Safely strapped into shopping carts, 2-year-olds whiz through the aisles pointing to products mommy should get. At home, they know how to click the TV on and ask for a favorite program—there’s a good chance they’ll say “Elmo” or “Cheerios” before they can say a sibling’s name. Even at that young age they recognize and want (demand!) certain brands, and won’t settle for less.

“Children are the darlings of corporate America,” writes Susan Linn in her book Consuming Kids, the Hostile Takeover of Childhood (New Press, 2004). “They’re targets of marketers for everything, from hamburgers to minivans.”

According to the US Census Bureau, the population of children age 3-12 is now at 40.3 million. Those kids make up 14 percent of the US population, and it’s hard to ignore their spending power. Money that families spend on items for their children such as food, clothing, entertainment and personal-care products are a major component of the market driven by kids. Based on data from the US Dept. of Agriculture, Packaged Facts (a division of estimates that in 2008, family expenditures on kids age 3-12 for selected products (including food, clothing, personal care, entertainment and reading materials) will total $175.6 billion, an increase of 16.4 percent over 2003.

But there’s more! Paul Kurnit, president and founder of KidShop (Chappaqua, NY), a youth marketing firm, explains in his report, “Kids as Third Parents,” that kids today are increasingly influencing high-ticket items like the family car, vacations and even the family home. “There are increasing stories of families who have purchased sport utility vehicles because the kids thought the family van was uncool; selecting a vacation venue because it had more kid-fun facilities and activities; or even rejecting the purchase of a new home because one of the kids didn’t like his or her prospective room,” he writes.

Family facts

Today’s kids live busy lives alongside their time-starved, career-focused, often Gen X parents. The old family model where daddy worked and mom took care of the family and home has changed drastically since the 1970s. In most two-parent families, both parents work full-time not just for financial reasons, but also because women value their careers. According to a comprehensive report on the US kids market by Packaged Facts, most kids age 3-14 live with both parents; but that still leaves 30 percent—15 million—who live in one-parent households, most of them headed by moms. Although the media seem to imply a shift lately, only 25 percent of mothers choose to stay home full-time. And many of those moms don’t stay home for the entire 18 or 22 years till all the kids are grown.

Even with dad present, managing work and family is daunting. “Young women want to be great moms, but they often have a hard time balancing the mom aspect with career,” says Dave Siegel, president and co-founder of Wondergroup (Cincinnati, OH), the largest independent youth marketing and advertising agency in the US. “There’s a huge difference between what they imagined parenthood would be and what it’s really like.” Hectic mornings, a long day at work, dinner, laundry, tucking in, and more—the everyday reality of the American home with kids.

A schedule like that doesn’t leave much energy for dealing with kids when they really want mom or dad to buy them something specific—a Happy Meal, the latest toy, the cereal in the cartoony box. And so parents are much more likely to give in rather than waste precious time and energy on an argument or negotiation. Siegel says Gen X parents, (especially mothers), who have a difficult time juggling career and kids can feel guilty. So they try to compensate with toys and other goodies the kids like and want, making sure that the time they do spend with their kids is filled with fun, not arguments. “Children can be pretty persuasive,” he says. “If a child really wants something, mom has to work very hard to ‘unsell’ it… The more appealing the product, the more time it takes to convince kids that they don’t really want it.”

Married couples with children have more spending power—an average income of $80,744—than married couples without children, whose average income is $71,731, according to Packaged Facts. Couples with children spend $58,104 annually, which is about 43 percent higher than the amount the average consumer spends.

In cahoots with their kids

Today’s parents involve their children (even the very young ones!) in most of the purchasing decisions because they know their kids are very particular, and they value the kids’ perspective. According to Packaged Facts, kids influence more than $600 billion in spending a year. “Kids have extraordinary influence on what mom brings to the household, where the family goes out to eat and where they go on vacation,” says Siegel. According to Packaged Facts’ The US Market for Kids Foods and Beverages, children age 5-14 influence some 78 percent of total grocery purchases, and directly control an estimated $10 billion just in food-and-beverage spending.

“While parents often get annoyed with children’s demands, they generally enjoy shopping with them, and acknowledge that their kids frequently influence their brand selections,” Siegel says. The US Kids Market reports that families with Gen-X parents are more likely to operate as a team, with buying decisions often a collaborative process between parents and kids, rather than the “because I’m the mommy/daddy” approach of older generations.

In the Packaged Facts report, parents of kids age 3-12 view shopping as recreation rather than a chore. They like to spend long periods browsing rather than grab what they need and leave. And in the book Marketing to the New Super Consumer: Mom & Kid (due out this fall), Wondergroup founders Dave Siegel, Timothy Coffey and Gregory Livingston actually treat mother and child as one.

TV as sitter

imageA recent comprehensive report by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that the media, especially television, accompany kids almost every day. “The vast majority of American children are growing up in homes where television is a near-constant presence. In many homes, the TV goes on early in the morning for news, weather and cartoons while everyone gets ready for work and school. It’s on again later in the day and stays on for dinner and into the night. It’s on during the weekend and sometimes even during family gatherings. In some homes, children play, eat, and do homework in front of TV.

“Two-thirds of 0- to 6-year-olds live in a home where the TV is on at least half the time or more, even if no one is watching; and one-third live in ‘heavy’ TV households, where the television is left on ‘always’ or ‘most of the time,’” the study found. It also confirms that TV as babysitter is very much in play: 45 percent of all parents said that if they have something important to do, there’s a very good chance they’ll use the TV to occupy the child: It’s easier to plunk a 2-year-old in front of Teletubbies than chance the short-term attention a toy or book commands. And there’s a reason for TV’s magic: it mesmerizes, which accounts in large part for its ability to keep a child attentive, quiet and happy.

And what are they watching? Again, they know what they like. Most toddlers (age 1-3) and pre-schoolers (3-5) won’t watch whatever an adult turns on. Instead, nearly two-thirds of these younger kids quickly learn to ask for their favorite show, and almost as many just help themselves to the remote. Nearly 200 TV shows are geared specifically to children, including cartoons, educational programs, and science and nature shows.

It’s not surprising, then, that TV advertising is the most powerful way marketers reach children. “On average, a child spends four hours in front of the tube each day and views as many as 40,000 commercials per year,” writes Margaret Magnarelli in Parents magazine. And somewhere between breakfast and Sesame Street, a 4-year-old quickly absorbs “breaking news” about some crunchy cereal, fun toothpaste, or the latest version of a favorite toy. With kids’ natural instinct for instant gratification, the next trip to the mall or the grocery store will likely start with a litany of “Mommy, buy me . . .”

Computer kids

imageEven though TV is a number-one pastime for kids, computers are quickly making their way to the top of the “favorite things to do” list. Most children (75 percent) live in a home with a computer, and 63 percent have access to the Internet. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation media study, about half of all children age 6 and under, and seven out of ten in the 4-6 age range, have used a computer. In fact, many kids start even younger: one in four kids under age 3 has used a computer without sitting on a parent’s lap.

Computer and software manufacturers have quickly caught up, and there’s now a variety of kid-friendly educational or “just for fun” software featuring popular cartoon characters. Winnie-the-Pooh teaches toddlers to count; Clifford teaches 4- to 6-year-olds to read; Dora explores, and takes the little ones with her. The list goes on.

There’s also an array of kid-friendly computer accessories for little hands. A colorful keyboard, designed especially for little, unskilled fingers features large colorful keys with rounded tops for easier typing. Some are adorned with cute bugs, bees, butterflies or airplanes, and a ledge where kids can put some favorite things. There are computer mice just for kids, small and colorful, in the shape of a ladybug or bee, or featuring favorite characters: Dora, Sponge Bob, Blue’s Clues, Elmo, Ernie, Cookie Monster, Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. Clearly designed specifically for kids, not mom or dad, these things give them a sense of ownership.

It’s no secret that the market overflows with kid-specific products. It’s just a matter of reaching out to kids and offering what they want, in order to make sales time and again. Here’s how.

Back to school

For most kids, according to Kurnit, the end of the summer is the busiest and most exciting shopping season. They look forward to the new school year, seeing their friends again after a long vacation, and getting tons of new stuff for school: new clothes, new supplies, new accessories. “It starts in the summer at the mall,” he writes. “In July and early August kids go to the mall to check out what’s going on… They’re trend-surfing. They need to know what’s in the stores. They need to know what other kids are into, what’s cool and what to buy.” For kids, trend-surfing is intuitive. Smart retailers carefully follow trends, too (watching Nickelodeon is one of the ways to stay on top of “kid fashion”), and stock school supplies, accessories, and toys that are in high demand.

Books are always an easy sell for parents and kids alike. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation study, 79 percent of 0- to 6-year-olds are read to or read themselves for about 40 minutes on any given day. “Parents consider reading an important part of growing up,” says Siegel. Books and accessories as well as toys that remind Gen-X parents of their own childhood are likely to be very popular. “That’s the story behind Barbie’s success—today’s moms were playing with Barbie as little girls,” he says.

Selling to kids

imageKids are attracted to specific things. They know what they like and they know what they want. Here’s how to attract them, sell them, and ensure that they keep coming back.

Make your cart or store appealing to kids. Make it feel like your place is just for them. “Let’s learn from the great masters like Disney,” says Siegel. “The store should look like a lot of fun, bright and cheerful with balloons, music and friendly cartoon characters.” For young children, choose characters with round shapes (no sharp points), like Mickey Mouse or Barney: young kids perceive them as friendly and safe. Bugs Bunny and Tasmanian Devil, which are more angular, appeal more to tweens and teenagers.

“Be sure to display merchandise at the kids’ eye level,” says Siegel. “Kids are short, and won’t notice things displayed three or four feet above the ground.” Another suggestion: kid-size furnishings. Siegel says many supermarkets do a great job by offering mini-shopping carts or car-shaped carts for younger kids. So if you have the space, he says, add a small table with kid-size chairs.

Sell products that feature kids’ favorite characters. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 97 percent of kids under age 6, and 93 percent of one-year-olds, own products based on characters from TV, movies or video games. Clearly, this subcategory is a winner.

Let them touch. Kids are curious, and they like to touch everything—especially toys—so have samples on display that they can hold and play with. “Once the product is in their hands, it’s hard to let go, so it might be an automatic sale,” says Siegel.

Treat kids with respect. “There’s nothing worse than approaching the child as a tag-along to mom,” says Siegel. Speak to the child directly—not to mom—with something like, “Do you think you’d like this one in a different color?”

Offer books and educational games. Many parents emphasize their children’s development and education, and more parents are reading to their babies and young kids. (From 1993 to 2001, the percentage of 3- to 5-year-olds who are read to every day by a family member rose from 51 percent to 55 percent.) Obviously, books and teaching toys will draw in parents and grandparents who want smart kids.

Use sales, promotions, special offers and freebies. In some ways, selling toys is no different from selling other products, and this is one of those ways. According to a survey of kids age 6-14 by KidzEyes, a unit of C&R Research in Chicago, the best way to get the kids’ attention is to offer them something for free. “There’s a reason banks and doctors’ offices give out lollipops,” says Siegel. Restaurants do, too: when they offer kids freebies like fun games, crazy straws or crayons, the kids are happy, the parents are happy, and the kids will want their parents to take them there again. More than half the kids interviewed for the KidzEyes survey said their favorite form of promotion was a free gift with purchase. Free samples are almost as good, but sales are the most popular form of promotion for kids: 89 percent of kids age 6-8 reported that they had bought something on sale.

Kurnit offers seven simple rules for attracting the kid consumer:

  1. Stay in touch with kids. Follow fast-changing trends, and watch commercials and programs geared to kids. Talk to kids you know to see which products, colors and accessories are “cool” at the moment.
  2. Be new, yet familiar. Offer products that kids can easily recognize, such as crayons, but with a new twist-e.g., unusual colors, new shapes, ones that bend but don’t break.
  3. Stay ahead of your competition. Know what they offer, and try to be better.
  4. Connect with the kid lifestyle. Stay trend-conscious, and be “evident” in the summer so they’ll “buy you” for the fall.
  5. Be “kid cool” without being adult obvious. Kids are increasingly suspect of blatant sales pitches.
  6. Provide incentives that motivate kids. As mentioned, use sales, promotions, offers and tie-ins.
  7. Keep your innovation constant. Simply put, always keep it new, keep it fresh.

And keep it going: Once you put it all together and get it right, start on the next new idea that will capture the hearts, minds and dollars of the kid market.

Kasia Dawidowska

Dawidowska writes frequently for both trade and consumer magazines. She can be reached at .

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