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Girls Go From Hello Kitty To Hello Debit Card

Brand's Power Tapped to Reach Youth

By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page A01

The popular Hello Kitty brand -- commonly found on stationery, purses, pajamas and other items for children -- will soon start appearing on a new platform: a MasterCard debit card.

"Freedom! You can use the Hello Kitty Debit MasterCard to shop 'til you drop," the card's Web site enthuses.

Barbie's Shop with Me Cash Register provides "realistic" accessories and comes with a toy American Express card. (Carol Porter -- The Washington Post)

The prospective audience? The young women who grew up with the 30-year-old icon -- as well as much younger girls. "We think our target age group will be from 10 to 14, although it could certainly go younger," said Bruce Giuliano, senior vice president of licensing for Sanrio Inc., which owns the brand.

Since only parents (or at least anyone older than 18) can sign up for the card, Hello Kitty thinks it's a great way for adults to "help teach their children how to manage their finances," Giuliano said. Next up, he added, is a prepaid Hello Kitty cell phone.

The card, due out in a few weeks, is the latest example of how corporations aggressively court the $30 billion-a-year youth market. Until recently, financial institutions pretty much ignored this powerhouse of spenders. The Hello Kitty card shows those days are gone.

"Children are now open game, prey to many financial institutions in this country," said Joline Godfrey, author of "Raising Financially Fit Kids" and chief executive of Independent Means Inc., a California financial-education firm. "Financial institutions used to be pretty conservative members of the community, preaching balanced budgets, home ownership and savings. Over the course of time, they have become more partners with retailers teaching children how to spend and consume." As a result, she said, the cards become a "great educational tool . . . to say to kids, 'Spend, spend, spend, buy, buy, buy.' "

Officials at MasterCard and Visa, which introduced a prepaid debit card for teens called Visa Buxx in 2000, say the cards are an educational tool. "We think it's a good way to teach teens good money management early on," said Rhonda Bentz, spokeswoman for Visa USA.

Hello Kitty's lesson comes with a cost. The activation fee is $14.95 (and another $14.95 if you renew after a year). There is a $2.95 monthly maintenance fee, a $1.50 ATM-withdrawal fee and a $1-per-minute fee to talk to a customer service agent.

The fees are "probably the worst I've run across," said Robert McKinley, chief executive of CardWeb.com Inc., a Frederick firm that tracks the credit card industry.

Peter Klamka, president of Legend Credit Inc., which developed the Hello Kitty card, says his fees are smaller than a couple of branded cards. Because it is not a credit card, he added, the card cannot make money by charging interest.

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