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Selling Us

Kids Rule for Back-to-School

Retailers Know That Children Are Making the Purchase Decisions

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page F05

For many years I've been hearing how much more consumer power kids have these days. Especially during the back-to-school shopping season, report after report gets issued by various marketing and research organizations showing that children directly or indirectly influence so many billions of dollars in retail sales (the number's always different).

I don't doubt this is true, but I do wonder how it got that way. Why are kids such powerful consumers now? Is it the incessant drumbeat of youth-oriented commercials on television (also the subject of numerous research reports)? The pushy retailers? The makers of a growing variety of kid-oriented merchandise?

_____Correction_____
The Selling Us column in the Aug. 15 Business section gave an incorrect university affiliation for Douglas A. Gentile, director of research at the National Institute on Media and the Family. He is a professor of child psychology at Iowa State University, not Ohio State.


_____Past Columns_____
Everywhere Is Heard A Discouraging Word (The Washington Post, Aug 8, 2004)
So Close at the Hairdresser's (The Washington Post, Aug 1, 2004)
Thinking Inside The Boring Black Box (The Washington Post, Jul 25, 2004)
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In fact, it seems, none of these is at the root of this phenomenon. Those marketing machines are merely capitalizing on the power that kids have been granted by their parents, bit by bit, over the years. And the fact that kids now have that purchasing power is a big part of why the back-to-school season has become such a huge marketing phenomenon.

Some retailers argue that children -- those in their teen years, anyway -- have a growing influence on the industry because they have their own money to spend, either through allowances or real jobs. Although kids have been earning extra money for generations, the marketing machinery of the retail world didn't genuflect before them until, say, about 10 years ago. Besides, during the back-to-school shopping season, most of the kids' stuff is actually being paid for by parents, even more so than during the rest of the year.

Yet in July and August, most of the advertising for back-to-school is found on programs and stations that target children, not grownups.

"We try not to put too much of our ad dollars into the media that the kids don't read, so we really heavy up radio and try to find places where it's best for getting to the kids," said Frank Guzzetta, president and chief executive of department store Hecht's. "There is no question that you need to reach that kid and influence that kid, and then they'll influence the parents."

It's not that parents are doormats. It's just that the way they are raising their offspring today creates these superconsumers by age 8. Marketing experts say that children are "involved" in the choosing of items to buy and eat -- for themselves and for the whole family -- an overwhelming percentage of the time. Why? Because it has become a prominent style of parenting to solicit the opinions of our children, starting at a very young age. It's considered relationship-building and good for self esteem.

Market research firm Just Kid Inc. of Stamford, Conn., estimates that 76 percent of mothers of 7- to 12-year-olds consult their children about what to have for breakfast or let them choose it outright, while 36 percent involve them in dinner decisions. It's slightly lower for 2- to 6-year-olds, but still significant: Fifty-two percent of such tots have a say in the first meal of the day, while 24 percent get to dictate the menu for supper, the company says.

"We've raised our kids differently, to have opinions. It's a lot more collaborative process than it used to be," said Laurie Klein, vice president at Just Kid. "I don't remember my mother asking me what I wanted for breakfast."

And what starts there moves outside the home. Child psychologists say it's a natural progression for children who are given options at home and who are asked to help make decisions about routine daily life, to take that power and run with it.


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